Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 Wrap-up

I’m flying back home for New Year with the family, and will have only dubious access to the internet until January 8. So, slightly early, here is my 2012 reading list. I’m going to do two – rather foolish – things with it. First, try to sum up (mad pursuit!) what I consider to be the essence of the book in a sentence. And secondly, rate it on a very simplistic rating scale. I don’t think I’ve read any bad book this year, so the rating system is: * for a good, solid, decent read; ** for something very good; *** for excellent; ***** for brilliance in writing, plot, characterisation or even in episodes (insert appropriate markers for poetry); and ***** for, well, life-changing. I know this simplifies to the point of distortion, but for want of anything better…

A. Literary fiction

1. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables: Annoyed by the constant preachy moralizing, enthralled by the richness of description (Waterloo, sewers, slang), and utterly enraptured by the scope, colour and movement of the 1831 Revolution. ***

2. Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere: A savage – yet brilliant – indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution, and their inevitable, tragic entanglement. ****

3. A.S. Byatt, Possession: Tedious and over-described at points, gripping at times, and fairly compelling both in its parallel descriptions of two love stories spanning two centuries and two very different societies, as well as its account of the literary academic life. **

4. J.L. Borges, Ficciones: Takes our conceptions of time, space and existence, and twists them around until they become unrecognizable, until dreams mingle with reality and we can’t tell the two apart, until our heads are absolutely exploding. *****

5. Oscar Wilde, The Collected Short Stories: Light, darkness and dappled shadows characterise these short stories, ostensibly for children, but clearly of much greater depth – and also, incidentally, possessing in one of them the most brilliant subversion of the soul-body relationship that I’ve come across. ***

6. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel: Borges, in his preface, calls this the perfect novel, and you can understand why – “brilliant” simply doesn’t do justice to the force and power of this short novel to radically destabilise our firmest convictions about the human condition. *****

B. Speculative Fiction

1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (re-read): Epic fantasy in the time of the troubadours, and quests, wars, love and poetry, all in language that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien. ***

2. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (re-read): Epic fantasy set in a world resembling the Italian city-states of medieval times, with a dash of sorcery, and a wonderful theme of memory, loss and the power of naming. ****

3. China Mieville, Railsea: Classic Mieville – a brilliant premise, outstanding writing, and an ending that goes out like a damp squib. **

4. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris: I always knew this was part of the SF canon, and now I know why – a profound treatment of the eternal themes of love, memory and humanity, all of which intertwine beautifully within a hard, scientific setting – I cannot recommend this highly enough. ****

C. Poetry

1. Lermontov, Collected Poetry: Brooding, melancholy, ironic and deeply compelling. ***

2. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: —- *****

3. Borges, Collected PoetryA wealth of references, most of which I’m sure I missed, weaving in his pet ideas about time and space into verse, and filled with delightful imagery. ****

4. Milton, Paradise Lost (re-read): Things unattempted yet – or since – in prose or rhyme. *****

5. Virgil, Aeneid (re-read): Epic, lyrical, stirring, passionate – of course, but so much more – musings on the ever-unattainable ideal in the beautiful image of an always-reaceding shoreline, meditations on Empire, a “private voice” that subverts the dominant paean to Rome even as it is being established, constant defamiliarisation of comfortable bracketed categories of good and evil, civilised and barbarian, us and the other. *****

D. Drama

1. Ibsen, Love’s Comedy: Flawed, of course, but brilliantly compelling while reading, and stays with you for a long time afterwards – another destabilizing analysis of the ideas of love, permanence, decay and time. **

2. George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma: One of the few works I’ve come across where a modern writer manages to insert a classical moral dilemma in the style of Greek tragedy without sacrificing plot, pacing, dramatic intensity or anything else, for that matter. **

3. Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: Admittedly, extremely powerful, but I was left numbed, depressed and with the unshakeable – although temporary – conviction that there was nothing in this world but sheer hopelessness. **

4. Goethe, Faust: Musings on the clash between radically opposed world-views of romanticism and the enlightenment, the fragility and incompleteness of all human endeavor, the agony of that realisation, and what a man can do – or wish for – to overcome that agony. ****

E. History

1. John MacLeod, Highlanders: A History of the Gaels: I bought this book at Culloden Museum, while traveling in my beloved Scottish highlands, and found it to be a solid and informative – if unspectacular – account of the history of that tragic region. *

2. James Hunter, Glencoe and the Indians: Beautifully weaved together the stories of the Highlanders and the Native Americans as victims of Empire (as well as mercantile capitalism), with deeply moving accounts of Glencoe, of Wounded Knee, of the Trail of Tears, of the Ghost Dance (and so many more), that all seemed to fit together in one litany of the crimes of colonialism. ***

F. Essays

1. Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An erudite analysis of the European novel, the art and nature of translation, and in particular, Kafka. ***

2. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novels: Focuses almost entirely on the history and evolution of the European novel, in the broader context of European culture (music and art) as well – lyrically written and painstakingly analysed, an exhilarating read. ****

3. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Essays: His thesis on the meaning, nature and purpose of art – the erudition and detail is astounding, and his ideas deeply challenging and subversive – a must-read, especially the four essays on art. *****

4. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism: Probably extremely outdated now, but I did find some good ideas in there. *

5. Hazlitt, Essays on Shakespeare: The interesting thing about these essays is that rather than subjecting the plays to an overarching analysis of theme, plot, characterisation, language etc. – Hazlitt instead picks out one or two themes from each play that he finds specifically interesting, or worthy of analysis, and the result is extremely thought-provoking. ***

6. Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Western Drama: The fact that this was written in the 18th century and reflects the deep-sated prejudices of the time hardly takes away from the fact that it is a brilliant, detailed and erudite birds-eye view (if that isn’t an oxymoron) of the development of the European drama from Aeschylus down to the time of Schlegel, with stopovers in France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy. ***

7. Borges, Collected Essays: See description of Ficciones, and add to that some very thought-provoking analyses of Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge and The Arabian Nights, to take just a few examples. *****

8. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism: I cannot now imagine reading and appreciating Baudelaire, or the broader context in which he wrote, without having read Walter Benjamin’s stunning analysis of 19th century France and the themes of Baudelaire’s poetry. (Thanks, Aparna, for the heads-up)

G. Miscellaneous

1. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: Intoxicating and heady, but ultimately, once the (Dionysian) madness wears off, fails to persuade. **

2. Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents: Disturbing and rings disturbingly true. ***

3. Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends: The Inklings at Oxford, of the creation of Narnia and Middle-Earth, of drinks at The Eagle and Child and strolls along Addison’s Walk – what more could a Tolkien-and-Oxford-lover want? ***

**

I also have the beginnings of a proposed 2013 reading list.

1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda

2. Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (I saw the review over on ANZ LitBlogs, and knew immediately that I have to read this one).

3. Proust, Swann’s Way (but only after June, and the ending of the academic year!)

Any suggestions of any kind would be appreciated. I know the 2012 list doesn’t really give you anything to go by, since it is utterly random, but I’m game for trying anything, time permitting.

Have yourselves a great last few days of 2012, and a lovely 2013, everyone.

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The Impossibility of the Ideal – An Addendum: Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy

Still on the topic of the impossibility of the ideal: a conversation in the comments section of the previous post reminded me of what is perhaps the most stark and vivid treatment of the concept that I’ve come across. It is Ibsen’s early play, Love’s Comedy. It would be accurate, I think, to say that Ibsen begins where Baudelaire and Rudel leave off; in Love’s Comedy, through the characters of Falk and Svanhild, he shows us precisely what would happen if Baudelaire found his city-woman again, or Rudel his Lady of Tripoli. Ibsen takes the argument right to the bitter end, does not flinch from the disturbing consequences of his own logic, and has both the dramatic skill and the human sensitivity to carry the whole thing off very convincingly.

Love’s Comedy, like all Ibsen, is primarily social commentary: set in a late-nineteenth century Norwegian country boarding-house, it deals with the subjugation of women and the stifling nature of conventions – interrelated themes, both. But what I’d like to discuss is the other theme that weaves its way around these two, that is, Ibsen’s treatment of a certain kind of love, a love that would be avowed by a Lermontov or a Byron, and which, with some discomfort, but for want of a better label, I will tentatively classify as “romantic love“. This is the love between Falk and Svanhild, that sets itself up in opposition to and in conflict with the more… conventional forms that it takes in the relationships between the other – rather more traditional – members of the country house.

A brief account of the characters: Falk is the revolutionary poet, the rebel against society, a Lermontov or a Shelley. Svanhild is the woman trapped in the stifling webs of social convention and, ostensibly, longing to escape. All the other characters – Mrs Halm, the proprietress; Stiver, the lawyer and Miss Jay, his fiancee; Guldstad, the wholesale merchant; Lind, Falk’s friend and fellow-student and his fiancee, Anna; and Strawman, the clergyman are society at its most conventional – although with their own individual twists.

The scene is set at the very opening, when Falk is reciting a poem for the gathering, a poem in which he celebrates the fleetingness of moments:

I will live in song and gladness,—
       Then, when every bloom is shed,
     Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
       All that glory, wan and dead:
     Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
       Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
     I have plucked the flower, what matter
       Who devours the withered husk!

Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word “next” from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives and we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver the lawyer was first in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours. And yet, he hasn’t written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. At one level, one could view this as a simple commentary on how social conventions destroy all depth of feeling. But at another level, if we look at this in light of Falk’s opening poem, there is a deeper point here: the wellspring of your inspiration that flowed freely when you were pursuing your ideal dries up utterly when you attain it. This is what Falk really means when he says that an engagement destroys love. This is the hidden truth behind his subsequent contemptuous dismissal of Strawman the clergyman:

FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
 He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom’s doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke’s the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.

Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.


Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I’ll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you’ll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I’ve pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn’t heeded.

At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:

I’ll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.

And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for: 

Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being’s springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.

And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn’t answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that… well, you know what that will bring.

There is another point at issue here. In his conversation with Svanhild, Falk stresses on how important she is to him, how much she means to him, as a muse.

FALK.
 Yes, free, for freedom’s all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty’s spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I’ll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe. 

In my previous post, a commentator remarked about how Baudelaire doesn’t necessarily want love as much as the feeling of being in love. Something similar is at work, I think, when analyses of A une Passante indicate that to the flaneur, the city-woman serves essentially as an inspiration, or a literary device. And something similar is happening here. The ideal serves not as something we desire, but something that exists so that we can experience the feeling of desiring it, and in that feeling, either (in the case of the flaneur) find a better representation for our own consciousness or, in the case of Falk, be inspired to write great poetry.

I would love to discuss the brilliant interplay between Falk and Svanhild, but that will have to wait for another post. Suffice it here to say that Svanhild rejects him at first – and understandably so – you wouldn’t want to have your existence defined and exhausted by being someone else’s muse, would you? She exhorts him not to write but be (echoes of Kundera’s house of mirrors here); Falk then has a bitter and violent argument with the rest of the members of the household about love, marriage and convention, during the course of which his eloquence and passion is such that Svanhild falls in love with him. They resolve to march to battle against the enemies Society and Convention together. Falk has further arguments with individual members of the household. He and Svanhild determine to leave and travel elsewhere. But then in comes Guldstad, the dry, prosaic, quotidian wholesale merchant, and he asks Svanhild to marry him.

It sounds utterly absurd at first – two lovers, in all the passionate blaze of youth, who have just determined to initiate a war against all the forces of convention; and a grey-haired wholesale merchant who is as much a part of the establishment as a high-backed and cushioned armchair. Surely, if he tries to match arguments with Falk, it is going to be a complete mismatch. But then Guldstad puts forward his claim: 

GULDSTAD [completing his sentence].
That heartfelt love can weather unimpaired
Custom, and Poverty, and Age, and Grief.
Well, say it be so; possibly you’re right;
But see the matter in another light.
What love is, no man ever told us—whence
It issues, that ecstatic confidence
That one life may fulfil itself in two,—
To this no mortal ever found the clue.
But marriage is a practical concern,
As also is betrothal, my good sir—
And by experience easily we learn
That we are fitted just for her, or her.
But love, you know, goes blindly to its fate,
Chooses a woman, not a wife, for mate;
And what if now this chosen woman was
No wife for you—?

FALK [in suspense].
Well?

GULDSTAD [shrugging his shoulders].
Then you’ve lost your cause.
To make happy bridegroom and a bride
Demands not love alone, but much beside,
Relations that do not wholly disagree.
And marriage? Why, it is a very sea
Of claims and calls, of taxing and exaction,

Whose bearing upon love is very small.

In short, he makes a passionate case for safety, stability and security over “lawless passion” However, it isn’t Guldstad’s argument that is so very interesting, as is Falk and Svanhild’s response to it, once he has left, after asking them to make their choice. I quote it in full:

SVANHILD.
But if love, notwithstanding, should decay,
—Love being Happiness’s single stay—
Could you avert, then, Happiness’s fall?

FALK.
No, my love’s ruin were the wreck of all.

SVANHILD.
And can you promise me before the Lord
That it will last, not drooping like the flower,
But smell as sweet as now till life’s last hour?

FALK [after a short pause].
It will last long.

SVANHILD.
“Long!” “Long!”—Poor starveling word!
Can “long” give any comfort in Love’s need?
It is her death-doom, blight upon her seed.
“My faith is, Love will never pass away”—
That song must cease, and in its stead be heard:
“My faith is, that I loved you yesterday!”
                    [As uplifted by inspiration.
No, no, not thus our day of bliss shall wane,
Flag drearily to west in clouds and rain;—
But at high noontide, when it is most bright,
Plunge sudden, like a meteor, into the night!

FALK.
What would you, Svanhild?

SVANHILD.
We are of the Spring;
No autumn shall come after, when the bird
Of music in thy breast shall not be heard,
And long not thither where it first took wing.
Nor ever Winter shall his snowy shroud
Lay on the clay-cold body of our bliss;—
This Love of ours, ardent and glad and proud,
Pure of disease’s taint and age’s cloud,
Shall die the young and glorious thing it is!

FALK [in deep pain].
And far from thee—what would be left of life?

SVANHILD.
And near me what were left—if Love depart?

FALK.
A home?

SVANHILD.
Where Joy would gasp in mortal strife.
                                      [Firmly.
It was not given to me to be your wife.
That is the clear conviction of my heart!
In courtship’s merry pastime I can lead,
But not sustain your spirit in its need.
                [Nearer and gathering fire.
Now we have revell’d out a feast of spring;
No thought of slumber’s sluggard couch come nigh!
Let Joy amid delirious song make wing
And flock with choirs of cherubim on high.
And tho’ the vessel of our fate capsize,
One plank yet breasts the waters, strong to save;—
The fearless swimmer reaches Paradise!
Let Joy go down into his watery grave;
Our Love shall yet triumph, by God’s hand,
Be borne from out the wreckage safe to land!

FALK.
O, I divine thee! But—to sever thus!
Now, when the portals of the world stand wide,—
When the blue spring is bending over us,
On the same day that plighted thee my bride!

SVANHILD.
Just therefore must we part. Our joy’s torch fire
Will from this moment wane till it expire!
And when at last our worldly days are spent,
And face to face with our great Judge we stand,
And, as righteous God, he shall demand
Of us the earthly treasure that he lent—
Then, Falk, we cry—past power of Grace to save—
“O Lord, we lost it going to the grave!”

FALK [with strong resolve].
Pluck off the ring!

SVANHILD [with fire].
Wilt thou?

FALK.
Now I divine!
Thus and no otherwise canst thou be mine!
As the grave opens into life’s Dawn-fire,
So Love with Life may not espoused be
Till, loosed from longing and from wild desire,
Pluck off the ring, Svanhild!

SVANHILD [in rapture].
My task is done!
Now I have filled thy soul with song and sun.
Forth! Now thou soarest on triumphant wings,—
Forth! Now thy Svanhild is the swan that sings!

[Takes off the ring and presses a kiss upon it.
To the abysmal ooze of ocean bed
Descend, my dream!—I fling thee in its stead!

    [Goes a few steps back, throws the ring into the
      fjord, and approaches FALK with a transfigured
      expression.

Now for this earthly life I have foregone thee,—
But for the life eternal I have won thee!

The underlined verses present, I think, the core thought. Paradoxically, it is only in parting that Falk and Svanhild’s love can survive. It is in the nature of the human condition for everything – including love – to decay, to fade, and eventually, to die with use; and so, there is but one solution to keep it alive: the lovers must deny themselves attainment and fulfillment. Baudelaire has found his city-woman again, but he can’t love her – his delirium, his vision of tempests, his resurrection – these can only ever happen if he sees her once, for a fleeting moment, in a crowd. And so, the second time, Baudelaire walks away. Rudel has come at last to the Lady of Tripoli, but how can he sustain his amor de lonh, and have the birds of autumn remind him of his faraway love, when she is right there in front of him, to touch, to grasp, to know? And so, Rudel must depart – whether or not it is to his death. That single, intense, divine passion that has characterised and defined one’s being must, at its very apotheosis, be rejected if it is not to be utterly destroyed.

Is it a happy conclusion? Anything but. We can sense the helpless, suppressed, thwarted anger bubbling within Falk as he bids his farewells to the company:

Forgive me my offences great and small, I resent nothing;— [Softly. but remember all.

And we can sense, only too vividly, the hopeless despair of Svanhild when, having accepted Guldstad’s proposal, and on seeing Falk depart, she says:

SVANHILD [Looks after him a moment, then says softly but firmly:
Now over is my life, by lea and lawn,
The leaves are falling;—now the world may take me.

And the last lines of the play:

CHORUS OF FALK AND THE STUDENTS.

And what if I shattered my roaming bark,
It was passing sweet to be roaming!

We leave – or at least, I left – Love’s Comedy with a distinct of sadness, at the inescapability of the paradox, the inevitability of the logic. It is as if Ibsen is saying, this is the game, and if you decide to play it, this is the only possible end. So choose – either play it and be a Falk or a Svanhild, or opt out, and be a Guldstad. 

It seems, in its original and classic sense, a Catch-22.

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Baudelaire, Rudel and the Impossibility of the Ideal

I’d like to discuss two very different poems, written by two very different kinds of poets, in two wildly contrasting styles – but which nonetheless evoke a very similar response in me.

The first is Baudelaire’s A Une Passante (To a Passerby). I append William Aggeler’s translation.

The street about me roared with a deafening sound .
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief ,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;

Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate, 
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

The second is an excerpt from Swinburne’s Triumph of Time, dealing with the legend of the troubadour Jaufre Rudel:

There lived a singer in France of old
By the tideless dolorous midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman, and none but she.
And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land, and saw her as life grew cold,
And praised God, seeing; and so died he.
Died, praising God for his gift and grace:
For she bowed down to him weeping, and said
“Live”; and her tears were shed on his face
Or ever the life in his face was shed.
The sharp tears fell through her hair, and stung
Once, and her close lips touched him and clung
Once, and grew one with his lips for a space;
And so drew back, and the man was dead.

 The context needs some explanation. The primary theme of troubadour poetry was chivalrous, or courtly love, being as they were, wandering composers and singers of Occitan lyric in the high middle ages, who depended to a great extent on royal patronage. The lyrics of the troubadours explore the idea of love from many different standpoints, in many different ways. One conceptualisation of it is Jaufre Rudel’s amor de lonh, or “love from afar”. Legend has it that Rudel (who was of the princely class) heard so much about the beauty and wisdom of the Countess of Tripoli, that without ever seeing her, and from far away in Southwestern France, he fell passionately in love with her. His songs reflect his love (During May, when the days are long,/ I admire the song of the birds from far away/ and when I have gone away from there/I remember a love far away.)

Eventually, Rudel decided to go on the Second Crusade to get to Tripoli, and legend has it that after a long and difficult journey, during which he fell sick, he was dying as he arrived; the Countess came down from her castle to him as he was brought ashore, and he died in her arms. During the romantic era, this theme was treated by many – Browning wrote Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli, and of course, there are those two stanzas from Swinburne.

Now, there is absolutely no doubt that Baudelaire’s views on love were radically opposed to those of the romantics, or those of the troubadours. So, to elucidate the commonality that I nonetheless do see in this, let’s look at Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis of A Une Passante. Benjamin is dealing with the concept of the flaneur as depicted in Baudelaire’s poetry, and in particular, the relationship between the flaneur and the  crowd that he observes, follows and mingles with. Benjamin writes:

The sonnet presents the crowd not as a refuge of a criminal but as that of love which eludes the poet. At first glance this function appears to be a negative one, but it is not. Far from eluding the erotic in the crowd, the apparition which fascinates him is brought to him by this very crowd. The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight. The never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” (Emphasis supplied) (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, p. 45)

Ignoring Benjamin’s broader point about what the flaneur tells us about the rise of capitalism in the 19th century, I’m particularly interested in the underlined words, which I think reveal another aspect of the poem, one that Benjamin does not treat in express words. I feel that in this poem, Baudelaire has captured, with great beauty and economy, a profound truth about the human condition: the unattainability of the ideal is what makes it so. Baudelaire’s state of delirium, the vision of tempests “germinating” in the woman’s eye, and more than anything else, “the sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills” all have their inception and their raison d’être in the first five words at the beginning of the tercet – “a lightning flash… then night“. It is the fleetingness of the moment and the impossibility of fulfillment that give rise to this mad intensity of feeling. This, precisely, is what is contained in Benjamin’s beautiful expression, “love at last sight“, and this is the truth he grasps when he says that “the never marks the high point of the encounter“. Not just that – the “never”, for me, defines the encounter and makes it worthy of a poem. Beauty is no beauty unless it is fleeting, and the single glance that resurrects the poet from the void of non-feeling, rescues him from his perennial state of soporific benumbment, would only send him back there if it lingered too long. I say this: when Baudelaire asks, “will I see you no more before eternity?“, he knows that the answer is no, and that is how is must be. The last three lines, ostensibly a lament, do not really signify the poet’s wish to find the woman again. On the contrary, if he did find her again, all would be lost. She would become just another person, commonplace and quotidian; and whatever she is in the poem, an ordinary person she is not. The poem is constructed and depends upon the fleetingness of the encounter, its very transience and ephemerality that permits the poet to see the certainty of love in a passing glance, experience resurrection in a moment’s gaze, find himself in delirium at a passing vision. The fulfillment of his electric, heightened sense of desire would destroy the very essence of what makes it so. As Benjamin writes later on, once again capturing the essence of things perfectly:

It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.”  (Benjamin, p. 125)

And most tellingly, later down on the same page:

This is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment.

And this, I think, is exactly what is at work in the Rudel legend, in the very concept of amor de lonh. Rudel’s death as he gazes his first upon the woman he has always loved is the only logical conclusion to the story. Just like Baudelaire’s intensity of feeling, his “love” – a kind of love admittedly entirely different from the love of the troubadours – exists on the condition of “farewell forever“, so Rudel’s amor de lonh exists on the condition of an eternally unfulfilled longing to bridge an unbridgeable distance. Rudel’s attainment of his ideal, the Lady of Tripoli, would be as anti-climactic and as destructive of everything as would be Baudelaire finding his city-woman again. The bittersweet yearning, the intensity of passion, the depth of longing created and then fed by non-fulfilment – all that would be lost at the moment of attainment. And so, for the sake of that love, and for the sake of the beautiful art that it creates, there must never be attainment or fulfillment.

And I feel there’s something else that must be noted. In my first post, I spoke about the sorrow of Virgil, of Byron and of Camus, the sorrow that comes with the inevitable awareness of the eternal gap between substance and shadow. But while the ever-retreating Ausonian fields make Aeneas weep and while Byron’s Manfred laments at humankind being “half-dust, half-deity”, for Baudelaire and Rudel, on the other hand, this impossibility is precisely what makes the ideal the ideal in the first place. And if that is the case, then there is no purpose in only lamenting – ideals are meant to bring forth great art, and for these two poets, that is precisely what they do.

(A similar – though not identical – point, incidentally, is made over on the Lemming Project, a dissertation on Walter Benjamin. The writer says: “The flâneur loves the passing stranger in the same way that he loves any source of inspiration or literary device–for its effectiveness as a representation of his own consciousness.” – see http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/home/a-une-passante.html)

It is a strange and alluring paradox – but if it is a paradox that gives to us A une Passante as well as the great troubadour lyrics, then I am grateful for it.

Rudel’s troubadour lyrics (and troubadour lyrics more generally): http://www.trobar.org/troubadours/jaufre_rudel/ (the musical world of the troubadours is endlessly fascinating – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough)

Browning’s Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli: http://www.online-literature.com/robert-browning/men-and-women/9/

Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174574 (a brilliant poem independent of all else)

Baudelaire’s poetry: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

A few things Walter Benjamin: http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/articles/articles-nav.html

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Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Jaufre Rudel, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Robert Browning, Troubadours, Victorian Poetry, Walter Benjamin

Some lines from Baudelaire

I just came across these stanzas from Baudelaire’s The Swan.

Background: the poet, wandering through the streets of Paris at dawn, sees a swan.

I saw a swan that had escaped from his cage,
That stroked the dry pavement with his webbed feet
And dragged his white plumage over the uneven ground.
Beside a dry gutter the bird opened his beak,

Restlessly bathed his wings in the dust
And cried, homesick for his fair native lake:
“Rain, when will you fall? Thunder, when will you roll?”
I see that hapless bird, that strange and fatal myth…

And then, a little while later:

So, before the Louvre, an image oppresses me:
I think of my great swan with his crazy motions,
Ridiculous, sublime, like a man in exile,
Relentlessly gnawed by longing! and then of you,

Andromache, base chattel, fallen from the embrace
Of a mighty husband into the hands of proud Pyrrhus,
Standing bowed in rapture before an empty tomb,
Widow of Hector, alas! and wife of Helenus!

I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive,
Trudging through muddy streets, seeking with a fixed gaze
The absent coco-palms of splendid Africa
Behind the immense wall of mist;

Of whoever has lost that which is never found
Again! Never! Of those who deeply drink of tears
And suckle Pain as they would suck the good she-wolf!
Of the puny orphans withering like flowers!

For me, the beauty and the greatness of these lines lies in how the poet makes use of a familiar myth in order to give us images that let us visualise an unfamiliar – and brutal – reality. Great poets through the ages have sung of the sufferings of Andromache, wife of Hector: Homer, Euripides and Virgil, to name just three. Baudelaire needn’t go into details, he needn’t compose beautiful verse in order to bring home to us Andromache’s agony; he only needs to mention it, insert a couple of references that remind us of Euripides and Virgil, and our own minds will do the rest; we will imagine her speech to Hector in Book VI of The Iliad, we will imagine her behind the high walls of Troy, having to watch her husband die on the battlefield; and then her child executed in the aftermath, and years of slavery, as Euripides describes in Trojan Women and Andromache; and lastly, living out her years far from her homeland, when Aeneas meets her in Aeneid III. And so, in that one stanza, by saying very little, Baudelaire, by simple techniques of reference, succeeds in evoking in us vivid images and a sharp, clear sense of bereavement, loss, despair, exile and hopelessness.

So, at this point, from the first three quoted stanzas, we have the image of a drooping and bedraggled swan waddling despairingly through the street of Paris, something we can relate to through directly felt and seen experience (even though we might not have seen a swan, we have all seen similar sights and thought similar thoughts), and from the next stanza, we have an equally clear image of exiled Andromache, through the medium of great poetry.

And then, in the next stanza, Baudelaire connects this with another situation, one that we are dimly aware of, but one that we don’t have images for, and one that, consequently, we can’t sense or feel as sharply – because great poets haven’t, really, sung of the sorrow and despair of victims of colonialism, seized from their homes and cast into a cruel and unfamiliar world, with no prospect of return.

But with that transposition, we suddenly do have our images; the sufferings of Baudelaire’s African woman are the sufferings of the lonely swan, and the sufferings of Andromache; we can sense it now, the exile, the loss, the pain, the hopeless longing – in a way that we couldn’t have had it only been an isolated description, no matter how powerful and evocative. It is this way of using associations, I think, that makes this particular poem profoundly powerful.

 

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Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry

Kundera, Life is Elsewhere – I

(This is a half-review from my previous blog, which I now intend to finish.)

“Life is elsewhere, the students have written on the walls of the Sorbonne. Yes, he knows that very well, it is why he is leaving London for Ireland, where the people are rebelling. His name is Percy Bysse Shelley, he is twenty years old, he is a poet, and he is bringing with him hundreds of copies of leaflets and proclamations that are to serve him as visas for entry into real life.

Because real life is elsewhere. The students are tearing up the cobblestones, overturning cars, building barricade; their irruption into the world is beautiful and noisy, illuminated by flames and greeted by explosions of tear-gas grenades. How much more painful was the lot of Rimbaud, who dreamed about the barricades of the Paris Commune and never got to it from Cherleville. But in 1968 thousands of Rimbauds have their own barricades, behind which they stand and refuse any compromise with the former masters of the world. The emancipation of mankind will be total, or it will not exist.

But only a kilometre from there, on the other bank of the Seine, the former masters of the world continue to live their lives, and the din of the Latin Quarter reaches them as something far away. Dream is reality, the students wrote on the walls, but it seems that the opposite was true: that reality (the barricades, the trees cut down, the red flags) was a dream.”

I hardly know where to begin describing Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, for it seems to me that no descriptions can even begin to do justice to its power, its complexity, its wisdom and its sadness. This is a book about poetry, about revolution, about their inevitable entanglement, about words and the power of words to create images that can exalt and destroy, about love, longing, rejection and heartbreak, about coming of age, about ideals and absolutes, about everything. Wit and pathos mix with irony and tragedy; and at the final shattering climax, I found myself filled with a profound sense of sorrow and loss, but also, most inexplicably, smiling at something I could not understand… at beauty, perhaps. And for those five hours, I was enraptured, and time ceased to exist.

It’s difficult to summarise the book, because it has a multiplicity of themes, and each of those themes are so inextricably intertwined with each other, that one cannot be described without describing all the others. One of the central themes, for instance, is the protagonist Jaromil’s belief in the absolute and self-effacing character of love. Yet, one cannot explain this without also explaining how this metamorphoses into, and then is itself coloured by, the absoluteness of the ideal that marks any youth-driven revolution; love and revolution are mixed up inextricably, as the scene where the poets debate about the nature of love in pre-revolution society, amply demonstrates. And one must also then go into the role of poetry, and again, how poetry influences and is influenced by, revolution. Indeed, you could sum up this book by describing it as a critique of Shelley’s famous “Poets are the ultimate legislators of the world” – but that would be incomplete. One could sum it up as a critique of the Romanticist idea, something that is echoed by all the major characters in the novel, something that starts as a platitude and ends as the ultimate tragedy: “When it comes to love, there is no such thing as compromise. When you’re in love you must give everything” – but that would be incomplete as well. It is difficult to sum up this book, to grasp it, as it were, from any one angle. And I haven’t even touched upon the account of the mother-son relationship that forms a cornerstone of the book, as well as its treatment of the complex issue of learning love as one grows up.

Well, briefly, the book is about the life of a young poet, Jaromil, in the backdrop of the Czech Communist Revolution of 1949. It is no Darkness at Noon or 1984 – the concentration camps and the show trials and the political purges are there, certainly, but they are there in the relative background. We are never allowed to forget them, but at the same time, there is no doubting that the principal point of the narrative is to tell the story of Jaromil, his life, his poetry, his loves, his relationship with his mother, his part in the revolution, and the connections between all these. Jaromil’s life is dominated by his mother. He is Rimbaud. He suffers from self-pride to the point of insecurity. He is Lermontov. He wants to change the world with his poetry, and he chafes at his own inactivity, his imprisonment in a “house of mirrors“. He is Shelley. But it’s not just about Jaromil’s life – his life is the vehicle that Kundera uses to ask those age-old, critical questions: what is the role of the poet – and thus, more broadly – art, in society? Why do the ideals of revolution always destroy that which they seek to preserve and exalt? And of course, that ultimate question: what, after all, is love, and what part does it play in our lives? And at the end, there is as much ambiguity as there is in the beginning. We have to work out the answers for ourselves, and the book leaves us with the disquieting feeling that there may be no answers, or that the answers might point us to a direction we dare not go.

He is ironic without ever descending into cynicism – and at the same time, piercingly witty. Consider:

… he found himself face to face with the blond classmate, who fixed her big blue eyes on him; her lips were no longer moving, no longer singing the song about the canary, which Xavier had thought would never end. Ah, what naivete, he reflected, to believe in the existence of a song that never ends! As if everything here in this world, from the very beginning, has been anything other than betrayal! Fortified by this thought, he took a look at the blond girl’s eyes and knew that he must not take part in the rigged game in which the ephemeral passes for the eternal and the small for the big, that he must not take part in the rigged game called love. So he turned on his heels and went back into the little washroom in which the stocky Czech schoolteacher was again planted in front of Xavier’s schoolmate, her hands on his hips.

Two things, I think, rescue this passage from depressing cynicism. The first is that Xavier himself is unreal – he is a creation of Jaromil’s. And secondly, these comments on the futility of love are sandwiched between two moments of high farce – the discovery of a teacher and a student kissing in the bathroom, and the deliberate return to that same spot. So, putting this in context, one gets the feeling that it’s not really about the impossibility of love, but in a sudden inversion, Kundera’s mocking the solemn declarations of the impossibility of love.

This kind of… uhm, defamiliarisation occurs regularly throughout the book. It’s there when Jaromil’s attempts to make love fail for various reasons on various occasions, and when he finally does achieve it, it is through the strangest anticlimax imaginable. It’s there when Kundera consciously juxtaposes eras and poets together, switching from Rimbaud in one line to Lermontov in the next, and to Jaromil in the third – and then back to Shelley in the last – and even as he does so, he juxtaposes the themes, showing, again, their inevitable intermingling. The effect cannot be described without directly quoting:

He looked at the girl as her last words died away; yes, that’s how it was; during all that time when he was tormented by solitude, when he was desperately taking part in meetings and processions, when he kept running on and on, his life as an adult had already been prepared for him here: this basement room with walls stained by dampness had been patiently waiting for him; this room and this ordinary woman whose body had finally linked him in a complete physical way to the crowd. 

The more I make love, the more I want to make a revolution – the more I make a revolution, the more I want to make love, a Sorbonne wall proclaims, and Jaromil entered the redhead’s body a second time. Adulthood is total, or it doesn’t exist. This time he made love to her long and marvelously.

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.

Again he slid out of the girl’s body, and as he lay stretched out beside her, it seemed to him that he was not resting after two long acts of love but after months of running.”

Notice, of course, that there are three very different acts of running that are being described and juxtaposed here. Jaromil is running to find love and adulthood. Shelley is running to change the world through revolution. And Rimbaud, well, it’s difficult to sum that up in a line! But the whole beauty of Kundera’s writing is how, in that one metaphor, the conditions of all three come together, and can be viewed through the lens of a single prism, since at bottom, they are essentially, the same.

For it is Kundera’s case that poets inhabit a house of mirrors; they forever long to belong to the world, the world of action and of enterprise, but cannot; and so they construct their own worlds through their poetry where, because everything is their own creation, there is nothing to condemn them, nothing to hold them to account and expose them if they come up short. But it is precisely in this that their sorrow lies, because they’re always longing to – and trying to – ride the wave on the cusp of the epoch. So, Kundera, quoting the poetry of Frantisek Halas (Banished from the land of dreams…) and Vladimir Mayakovsky, says: Only a true poet can speak of the immense longing not to be a poet, the longing to leave that house of mirrors where deafening silence reigns. The poet is always trying to go into the world, but the best he can do is show himself to the world; so, Kundera writes, in another remarkable juxtaposition:

The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…

(To be contd.)

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Filed under Czech Republic, European Writing, Milan Kundera

Reading Faust – II: On the Faustian Pact

In a beautiful essay called The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, the great philosopher Bernard Williams examines our very human desire to live forever. He concludes (inter alia) that our mortality is precisely what gives our life the meaning that it has. You will notice, at once, that this is the very anti-thesis of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Williams neither affirms nihilism in the face of the imminence and inevitability of death, nor advocates peace in a kind of Stoic acceptance. In fact, for Williams, the Sisyphean allegory would be a gross distortion of the human condition. Because our lives are short, because time is fleeting, because nothing lasts for ever, and not even a very long time, life has the beauty and the meaning that it does.

The title of the piece comes from a famous opera by the great Czech modernist composer, Janecek, written between 1923 – 25. Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, has been using an age-defying potion that has allowed her to live for three hundred years, in perpetual youth. And having lived so very long, Elina has come to a point where she is defined by one thing, and one thing alone: apathy. This apathy – or ennui – is reflected in her attitude towards love, in particular, her treatment of her multiple suitors: her falling asleep while one of them pleads his case, her Lysistratan coldness towards a second that she spends a night with (albeit blackmailed to do so), and her callous indifference on hearing that a third has committed suicide after having been spurned. And as the potion wears off, Elina realises that such a life is not worth living. Even though she has the formula that will allow her to live for another three hundred years, she rejects it, offering it to those around her. Nobody takes it, apart from one of the characters, who does so only to cast it into the fire.

This is a gross oversimplification, and omits many crucial plot points and dramatic turns, but it will do. The idea, as Williams points out, is that a mere extension of our physical lifespan will not change the other ways in which we are composed, the other things that make us human – and all of that is entirely at odds with immortality, or even with an inordinately long life-span. Not only our bodies, but our tastes, our passions, our desires – all these, to use a beautiful expression from Swinburne, “endure for a breath”. It is a long lifetime, not a short one, that would trivialise them to the point of irrelevance.

To take a very different example, recall the spacers in Asimov’s Robot novels. Having migrated from earth, living elsewhere in the galaxy, they have also managed to increase their lifespans to Makropulos levels. And for all their posturing, for all their sense of superiority, for all their contempt of “short-lived humans“, do you not sense a deep, profound bone-weariness in them? Asimov treats this brilliantly by showing us that in the Spacer society, because of their inordinately long life-spans, love as a concept has vanished from the lexicon, and from lived experience. “Sex is boring!” complains one of the characters, and proceeds to copulate with a robot (leading to the central conflict in the story), because she looking for something new, something that hasn’t yet been rendered prosaic, everyday and quotidian by repeated identical experiences.

That brings us to the Faustian pact. Recall that Faust offers up his soul in return for experiencing that one moment that he could wish would last for eternity.

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

What are we to make of this?  Well, first of all, Goethe himself writes, elsewhere, these famous lines:

Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragren,                                                                                            Nur nicht eine Reihe von schöen                                                                                             Tagen.”

I believe that the accurate translation is “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.” At the very least, that captures the essence. Think about it. Keats’ one kiss wouldn’t really yield him the eternal bliss he craves if it simply goes on forever, would it? In other words, we long for a moment that we would long to last forever, but if that desire comes true, then the very raison d’etre of valuing that moment so much would disappear.

This is the interesting paradox. While Faust is asking for a moment that, with its beauty, would so entrance him that he would find himself wishing that it lasted an eternity, he isn’t asking for it to really last an eternity. He can’t be. To bring it back to Williams, it is the very momentariness of these moments that makes them as beautiful, as precious, as rare as they are. And while they do last, they last not as moments, but as memories. That is what gives them their unique, exquisite, bittersweet flavour: they aren’t dead, they aren’t gone, but nor do they exist entirely. They live in a twilight zone, somewhere between substance and shadow, between reality and dreams, between world and word. The moment is beautiful not only for what it gives us, but also for how we are destined to remember it through the trackless years, with longing, with desire, and a whole smorgasbord of complex emotions that would also include, at times, pain, regret and loss. If that was to go, swallowed up by the moment itself, as it stretched on interminably through time, there would be so much that we would lose! Wouldn’t we?

And so, when in the throes of some deep and beautiful emotion, we spontaneously say something such as “How I wish this could last forever!“, what we have actually picked out and identified is, contrariwise, the very fleetingness, transience, impermanence of the moment in which we are living. That is what makes such instants what they are. And that, I think, is what makes the Faustian pact so… perfect. Goethe realises this, and so he has Faust exchange for his soul that most profoundly beautiful of all conceivable human experiences, a moment so wondrous in its momentariness, that notwithstanding the complete irrationality of the wish, it nevertheless compels you to wish that it would last an eternity.

I would joyously give up my soul for such a moment. Wouldn’t you?

(To be contd.)

A synopsis of that brilliant opera, The Makropulos Affair: http://www.leosjanacek.co.uk/makropulos.htm

Bernard Williams’ essay (only an abstract, unfortunately; it’s available in hard copy in his book, Problems of the Selfhttp://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511621253&cid=CBO9780511621253A012

A one-page synopsis by Camus on The Myth of Sisyphushttp://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm

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Filed under Bernard Williams, Goethe, Philosophy, Romanticism

Reading Faust – I

Recently, I read Bayard Taylor’s translation of Goethe’s Faust. I’d like to discuss a couple of rather fascinating issues that I think the poem/drama raises. I understand, of course, that I’m not a Goethe scholar or even a literary critic, but nonetheless…

Within the pages of Faust, I was held spellbound by what found to be the central conflict at stake: not one about the saving of souls or the damnation thereof, but the conflict between two world-philosophies, two radically opposed ways of looking at the world and our place in it: enlightenment and romanticism. To put it very, very crudely, the philosophy of reason against the philosophy of sentiment. Kant against Rousseau. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, which had its apotheosis in the 18th century, believed that reason, rationality and science, these were enough to reveal everything there was to know about the world; and that sentiments were a burden, a drain, a curse that, like the flesh dragging down the soul, lowered reason to their own brute level. Romanticism reacted against this view of the world (think of Rousseau’s Emile), instead choosing to place the sentiments, the emotions, the passions on a pedestal (recall, again, Keats’ elision of “truth” and “beauty” – the beauty of a nightingale’s song – in Ode to a Nightingale). In Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, for instance, he speaks of the “imagination” with the reverence that you would normally accord to a deity. The conflict is revealed, most starkly I think, by these beautiful lines from Keats’ Lamia:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

The image of science “unweaving the rainbow” is beautiful, bitter, heartbreaking – and justly famous.

With this background, let us examine the text of Faust.

Mephistopheles sets the scene in the Prologue, in his confrontation with God. Referring to man, God’s own creation, with utter scorn, he echoes a very Rousseau-esque view, that our reason is the cause of our suffering:

How men torment themselves, is all I’ve noted.
The little god o’ the world sticks to the same old way,
And is as whimsical as on Creation’s day.
Life somewhat better might content him,
But for the gleam of heavenly light which Thou hast lent
him:
He calls it Reason—thence his power’s increased,
To be far beastlier than any beast.

Of course, this is the devil speaking, and we can dismiss his words without much concern. But then the scene shifts to earth, and in his first monologue, Faust recounts all his years of scholarship, his expertise over a vast swathe of realms of knowledge, only to find:

that nothing can be known!
That knowledge cuts me to the bone.

He longs to stand upon a high mountain, bathed in moonlight; floating over meadows in twilight; to be liberated from the “fumes of lore”; he curses the dungeon he’s in, the “worm-eaten” dusty books, and cries out: “Such is my world. And what a world!” The imagery and the metaphor combine to give us an overwhelming sense that knowledge is a burden, an oppressive weight upon the heart, and that freedom lies far, far away from books.

Later in the same scene, Wagner comes in, the quintessential young enlightenment scholar earnestly seeking truth in texts, and this is how Faust admonishes him:

Is parchment, then, the holy fount before thee,
A draught wherefrom thy thirst forever slakes?
No true refreshment can restore thee,
Save what from thine own soul spontaneous breaks.

The last line is extremely interesting, for spontaneity was the one thing that Romanticism valued above all else (recall Keats famously telling us, if poetry does not comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all). Spontaneity, free imagination, as opposed to calculated reason.

And lastly, at the end of the scene, when he recalls his own religious experience, Faust breaks out, in lines of astounding beauty:

A sweet, uncomprehended yearning
Drove forth my feet through woods and meadows free,
And while a thousand tears were burning,
I felt a world arise for me.

A “sweet, uncomprehended yearning“. Burning tears at something whose beauty we cannot plumb, cannot understand with human faculties of reason, but a beauty that we simply sense by virtue of being human, and in fact, it is the sheer inexplicability of that beauty, our inability to fathom it, that draws us to tears. That is the new “world aris[ing” for us, a world that in its very mystery and wonder, like the weaved rainbow, is at its most beautiful.

This then, is Faust. The greatest scholar in all the world, who now finds his scholarship a canard, his knowledge useless, all his expertise a waste, and longs for something else entirely, something he cannot even give a name to.

And Faust recognises the duality, the dichotomy, the irreconcilability of his situation, of the human condition. Walking in the countryside, with Wagner being, well, Wagner, Faust puts the issue starkly:

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother.
One with tenacious organs holds in love
And clinging lust the world in its embraces;
The other strongly sweeps, this dust above,
Into the high ancestral spaces.

And this is where Mephistopheles comes in. Back in his study, Faust is in agony. He feels the pull of the opposing impulses, he feels himself torn asunder, tossed this way and that upon the spindrift of doubt, he cries out:

One yearns, the rivers of existence,
The very founts of Life, to reach…

And, immediately afterwards:

Why must the stream so soon run dry and fail us,
And burning thirst again assail us?

Faust is in this state of mind when Mephistopheles reveals himself. And notice what it is that Mephistopheles promises:

My friend, thou’lt win, past all pretences,
More in this hour to soothe thy senses,
Than in the year’s monotony.
That which the dainty spirits sing thee,
The lovely pictures they shall bring thee,
Are more than magic’s empty show.
Thy scent will be to bliss invited;
Thy palate then with taste delighted,
Thy nerves of touch ecstatic glow!
All unprepared, the charm I spin:
We’re here together, so begin!

Notice the use of words: ‘senses’; ‘pictures’; ‘scent’; ‘palate’; ‘nerves’; ‘ecstatic glow’; it is a direct appeal to the passions, to the “non-reasoning” part of ourselves – in other words, to the appetites.

And when Mephistopheles comes back for the second time, Faust is in even greater agony. Such agony, in fact, that he longs for death, that he renounces everything in the world, and in a passage that could be right out of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, endorses a world in which it is impossible to feel anything, just a… neutral void:

Though some familiar tone, retrieving
My thoughts from torment, led me on,
And sweet, clear echoes came, deceiving
A faith bequeathed from Childhood’s dawn,
Yet now I curse whate’er entices
And snares the soul with visions vain;
With dazzling cheats and dear devices
Confines it in this cave of pain!

Cursed be, at once, the high ambition
Wherewith the mind itself deludes!
Cursed be the glare of apparition

That on the finer sense intrudes!
Cursed be the lying dream’s impression
Of name, and fame, and laurelled brow!
Cursed, all that flatters as possession,
As wife and child, as knave and plow!

Cursed Mammon be, when he with treasures
To restless action spurs our fate!
Cursed when, for soft, indulgent leisures,
He lays for us the pillows straight!
Cursed be the vine’s transcendent nectar,—
The highest favor Love lets fall!
Cursed, also, Hope!—cursed Faith, the spectre!
And cursed be Patience most of all!

It’s a wild, passionate outcry, but Mephistopheles, of course, is having none of it, and he offers Faust a way out of the pain. His service in this world for Faust’s soul in the next. And what will the Faustian pact be? What will Faust ask for? As the tension builds to an unendurable pitch and as the stakes are raised beyond all reckoning, this is what Faust asks for, in this quatrain of quite astounding poetic power:

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

In other words, if Mephistopheles can give to the world-weary, anguished Faust one moment that he wishes will last for eternity, the bargain is complete, and Faust will relinquish his soul.

I will have more to say about the nature of the Faustian pact in a subsequent post, but for now, let’s only notice that again, this idea of “living in every moment“, and of longing that a single moment of delight lasts forever, is a classically Romanticist idea. Again, I call upon Keats, from Endymion (admittedly, not entirely apposite, but it will serve, and there are more than enough similar lines scattered around the corpus of the Romantics):

Now a soft kiss – 
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss.

So Faust, the paragon of Enlightenment scholarship and learning, is giving it all away for a single moment that will bring him to the pitch of sensual delight. And if there was any doubt about it, here it is, confirmed, after the bargain is struck:

The thread of Thought at last is broken,
And knowledge brings disgust unspoken.
Let us the sensual deeps explore,
To quench the fervors of glowing passion!
Let every marvel take form and fashion

Through the impervious veil it wore!

And this sublime use of the chiasmus:

I take the wildering whirl, enjoyment’s keenest pain ,
Enamored hate, exhilarant disdain.
My bosom, of its thirst for knowledge sated,

Shall not, henceforth, from any pang be wrested,
And all of life for all mankind created
Shall be within mine inmost being tested:
The highest, lowest forms my soul shall borrow,
Shall heap upon itself their bliss and sorrow…

Because, at the end of the day:

I feel, indeed, that I have made the treasure
Of human thought and knowledge mine, in vain;
And if I now sit down in restful leisure,
No fount of newer strength is in my brain:

I am no hair’s-breadth more in height,
Nor nearer, to the Infinite.

Knowledge is a lie, Faust says, an illusion, a deceptionif the ultimate aim is to understand the Infinite, that famous “oceanic feeling” that Freud refers to, then the Enlightenment is not going to lead us there. 

Faust, thus, has triumphantly affirmed romanticism and rejected the Enlightenment. And he is a powerful spokesman. But what are we to make of it all? Because the moment he goes out of the room, Mephistopheles reverses everything in his soliloquy:

Reason and Knowledge only thou despise,
The highest strength in man that lies!
Let but the Lying Spirit bind thee
With magic works and shows that blind thee,
And I shall have thee fast and sure...

And suddenly, it’s the devil who is affirming reason, the “highest strength” in man, and gloating that he’s going to use “magic works” to “blind” Faust (surely, a symbol for passions blinding reason), and triumph over his soul in this way. And also, notice this: when he was talking to Faust, Mephistopheles made the argument that sensual delight is more than “an empty magic show”; now he uses the same language, and repudiates himself: “with magic works and shows that blind thee…” At this point, as a reader, I found myself rather disoriented and confused, and completely unsure about where my own sympathies lay in this tug-of-war. Perhaps that was the idea.

(To be contd.)

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Filed under Enlightenment, Goethe, Romanticism

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi: http://www.textetc.com/exhibits/et-hugo-1.html

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-garden.html

The Library of Babel: http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html

The Circular Ruins: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jatill/175/CircularRuins.htm

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1305/

The Truth of Masks: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1310/

The Decay of Lying: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

The Rise of Historical Criticism: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2309/

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Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde

Parry-Lord and Reading Homer

The other day, at my friend’s behest, I was watching the first part of Leonard Bernstein’s What is Classical Musicon Youtube. Like a good 1950s man, Bernstein begins with the question of the definition of classical music, in an Aristotelian framework of exclusion and inclusion. He considers epithets such as “good“, “serious“, “art” and even “long-haired“, only to reject them all. He finally isolates the essence of classical music in the comparatively minimal degree of freedom that it affords the performer of a piece, and the correspondingly greater degree of control that it vests in the composer. Bernstein then comes up with the following three adjectives to define classical music: “permanent, unchanging, exact“.

I nodded when I heard this for the first time. Permanent, unchanging. Makes perfect sense.

And yet, does it? Notice one thing. “Permanent” and “unchanging” are not synonyms. We normally agree that something is permanent as long as its essence remains the same – the thing itself can modify and evolve over time. And then again, something can be unchanging, but only temporarily. Why then does it seem natural for Bernstein – and for us – to run the two words together, as though it was simply… natural? We know from Foucault, after all, that words only take their meaning through other words; and as the great legal philosopher, Dworkin, points out, our language both constructs and protects a certain social environment. Is it, then, a human need for constancy (and notice, here, that “constant” is closer in meaning to both “permanent” and “unchanging” than they are to each other) that makes it natural for us to view these words in mutual company?

I bring this up because it is an idea bridge to discussing something that I read this summer, one of the most fascinating pieces that I have come across in recent times. I refer to Albert Lord’s book, The Singer of Tales. The theme is oral epic; in particular, Homer.

Homer and I have had a long and troubled association. Apart from a personal reminiscence, however, I think it reflects a broader, more interesting point. Like any child growing up with even the slightest interest in literature, I would hear ad nauseam about the greatness of Homer, the first and the best ever. Consequently when, as a callow youth of twelve, I took up The Iliad, I was already telling myself that I would have to enjoy it; anything else would reveal a serious lack in me. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t enjoy it. The catalogue of ships in Book II bored me to tears. The seemingly endless repetitions of different people dying in the same violent and graphic way made little sense. Even the climactic Achilles-Hector battle was decent, at best. I blamed it on Samuel Butler’s turgid prose. Then I read Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and was utterly smitten. Convinced that the fault lay not in my Homer but in my Butler, I scoured the Delhi bookshops for the man who, speaking out “loud and bold“, had made the great romantic feel like both an astronomer and stout Cortes, by turn. I finally got my hands on Chapman’s translation, and started with the Odyssey. By Book IV, I was so put off by the forced rhyming, that I cursed Keats, and abandoned it. One thing in Homer made perfect sense to me: the imagery. There was no doubt that the Iliad’s imagery is special. I recall, for instance, as a too-sentimental teenager of 19, in the first throes of rejected love, declaiming in the room of a friend, another self-confessed Homer fan, the lines “surely the grey sea bore her, and the sheer cliffs begot her, so cruel and remorseless is she!” But apart from that, I resigned myself to never quite understanding what was so special about Homer, that they all acknowledged him King and master. And I think many of my friends have had a similar experience with Homer – almost universally, for instance, we prefer Virgil to Homer (caveat – none of us know Latin, we can only read translations).

Until I read Lord’s The Singer of Tales, and understood that I was doing it all wrong. I was approaching Homer with a set of assumptions and presuppositions that were simply inapplicable, like trying to play football while following the rules of hockey. You’ll be playing something that resembles football, but which it isn’t football at all. So too for Homer. Let me try and explain.

We’ll start with the vexing Homeric question: how is it that the first practitioner of the art of epic was also its greatest? The beginning of any art form is riddled with flaws, a certain consequence of experimentation. It is only after trial and error, constant evolution, frequent regression, and the trial of years that an art form reaches its apotheosis (think of the evolution of perspective in art, for instance, from 13th century Italy to the paintings of Carlo Crivelli at the peak of the Renaissance). So how on earth did Homer stand at the beginning of epic, and also at its head? Well, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, after years of research and fieldwork, came to the startlingly simple conclusion: Homer wasn’t an epic poet who wrote the Iliad. In fact, the Iliad wasn’t, at first, written at all. Homer was an oral poet, who was part of an ancient and flourishing tradition of oral epic poetry, which was fundamentally different, in every conceivable way, from the written word.

I cannot describe, in any kind of details, the arguments that Lord puts forward for the Parry-Lord hypothesis in his book. I’ll come straight to the crucial differences between oral epic and the written word. First, and most importantly, the written tradition, ex hypothesi, assumes the existence of an original, a uniquely identifiable piece of text that is the work. There can be many translations of The Aeneid, and many interpretations, but there is only one Aeneid, what Virgil wrote. Scholars may divide forever over how best to understand Sailing to Byzantium, but nobody divides over what the poem is. It is what Yeats wrote (in a brilliant essay called What is an Author?, Foucault tries to question this fundamental premise with which we approach literary texts, but I, for one, don’t think he manages to make any dent in that mode of thinking – how could he?).

But that is not the case for oral poetry. There is no original, no “standard”, no “model”. Every performance is an act of individual creation. Yes, there exists a set of themes and motifs that can be loosely called The Iliad. But as an oral poet, whenever I sing the song of Achilles and Hector and Priam and Ajax, I am not imitating/interpreting/adapting/modifying a defined original, but rather, I am creating or composing something new. To use Bernstein’s terminology: a written text is permanent, unchangeable. Oral tradition is the very antithesis of that.

Secondly, oral poetry is composed under a set of conditions that differ radically from that of written works of art. Oral composers are performing for an audience; their primary concern is with holding the attention of their listeners. This has a number of consequences. Primarily, speed. Oral composition needs to be continuous. The problem, however, is that it also needs to adhere to a strict metre (the Iliad, for instance – dactylic hexameter; the yugoslav oral epics that Parry and Lord examine – lines of ten syllables, divided into half lines of 4 – 6). How on earth is the poet going to compose metrical verse on the spot? The answer lies in a stock of formulaic phrases and epithets that form part of the oral tradition, which every poet learns during his apprenticeship, and which he can draw upon as he sings. These “formulae” are designed specifically for adhering to the metrical form – for instance, for a four-syllabled half line, you will have a number of three-syllabled words that you can join with an “a” or a “the” or a “said”, or something of that sort. The skill of a great oral poet, therefore, lies in how he can manipulate the stock of formulas at his disposal – because all poets will have the corpus available to them – to create verse of great and enduring beauty. This, then, explains the constant repetition in Homer – if you already have a metred formula that describes death in battle, you don’t need to go out on a limb and find a new way of describing it each time. Originality, which all of us value so highly, simply isn’t a consideration here.

While formulae exist at the micro-level of lines and half-lines, they also exist at the macro level of themes, and how themes succeed each other. Lord talks about how the theme of an “Assembly” is extremely common throughout ancient epic – there are four assemblies in the first two books of the Iliad – and often, these are linked with speeches by heroes, by gift-giving, by the arrival of heralds, and by the declaration of war. This, again, explains why so many themes and motifs recur throughout Homer.

Thirdly, oral poetry is performed within a small-ish group (remember, we’re talking of pre-writing societies here) all of whom are aware of – and operate within – the tradition. Furthermore, the essentially fluctuating and variable nature of the performance means that standard requirements of coherence and consistency are entirely inapplicable. This allows us to come at the vexing catalogue of ships in Book II from two angles: first, the names and places Homer is mentioning would have been thoroughly familiar to his audience, and they would have been able to make the associations and connections that we cannot now – Homer was not writing for readers through time, but performing for a specific audience at a specific place at a specific time (unlike Virgil – compare Book VII of the Aeneid – the description of the Latin heroes – with the catalogue of ships; Virgil, writing an epic for contemporary Rome, knows that he cannot simply describe them like Homer, and leave the rest to the imagination of his audience; so, he punctuates his descriptions with passages of individual poetic beauty. Adam Parry points to one in particular – the mourning landscape that laments the death of Umbro: Te nemus Angitiae, vitrea te Fucinus unda,/ Te liquidi flevere lacus – For you the grove of Angitia mourned, and Fucinus’ glassy waters,/ And the clear lakes. Homer needs no such device, and has no use for it.)

Secondly, it helps us understand that the standard Aristotelian presuppositions with which we approach a text – unity of time, place, action do not apply to oral poetry. Homer is not concerned with presenting to us a tightly bound, internally coherent, economical narrative. Digression is no evil. There is no “central plot theme” that we expect from a novel, no core idea that binds the rest together. And that is why The Iliad is full of what we consider to be irrelevancies, random digressions, inexplicable departures from what we see to be the “main theme” – the siege and battle for Troy. There is no main theme in the first place, there is no logic of the narrative that dictates what is to happen next, and how.

In these few paragraphs, I have done little or no justice to the complexity, the ingenuity, the sheer wealth of detail and the brilliant argumentation of the Parry-Lord hypothesis. Their book is a beautiful work, argued with passion and flair. I cannot now think of reading Homer, or any of the major oral epic works, without having first read this book. It is honestly like trying to read a foreign language without knowing its linguistic structure.

But what this makes me think of that fundamental question. How ought we to approach a text? So far, I was reading Homer with all the presuppositions of a twenty-first century reader who has lived in, and has had his thought structured by, a world where written texts are the norm without exception. Now that he has learnt this was not the environment in which Homer composed, how should he proceed the next time he takes up the Iliad?

And this is THE classic debate in hermeneutics, one that is applicable not only to literature, but also, as far as I know, to history and to law, to take two areas I have a vague knowledge of. William Dilthey believed that it was possible to entirely overcome the limitations that existed in trying to understand/interpret texts from different eras and cultures. He argued that one could rise above one’s own bounded position, and understand texts entirely in their own terms – that there was this place (think of E.H. Carr’s image of the eagle on a crag, looking down upon the march of humanity) where all prejudices and all boundedness simply dissolved, and we could dispassionately examine and analyse anything, and arrive at the truth of its essence. In Truth and Method, Gadamer rejected this position, and along with it, rejected “prejudice” as something that one should strive to overcome in the first place. Gadamer’s prejudice is responsible for our fore-understanding of a text – that is, a Heideggerian notion of the understanding we bring to it before we have even read it. This “prejudice” is formed by our social and cultural environment. But crucially, for Gadamer, this is something to be welcomed; it does not cloud the truth, but rather, helps to reveal it. The horizon, he says, is only all that we can see from a particular point of view. And truth in interpretation is arrived at by achieving a merging of horizons. Habermas, in his turn, criticised Gadamer for simply accepting prejudice, and refusing to subject it to a critical examination. For Habermas, it is vital to examine the presuppositions and assumptions that constitute our fore-understanding in the first place.

It is hardly my place – and nor am I remotely competent – to present some kind of adjudicatory opinion on the merits of these positions. What I think this does demonstrate, however, is that even once we know the Parry-Lord hypothesis, it isn’t an open-and-shut case, how best we should read Homer. We need to think about what we are reading forwhy we are reading, what the point of literature and the aesthetic experience is, if we are to come to a conclusion about whether and to what extent we ought to try and put ourselves in the shoes of a sixth-century Greek listening to a singer around a fireside, to what extent it is even possible, if at all.

For my part, I will keep Parry-Lord at the forefront of my mind, the next time I take up The Iliad, because my first objective is to get past the catalogue of ships without feeling intensely put off!

The wiki entry for The Singer of Tales: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singer_of_Tales

Keats’ brilliant poem that is also, in my opinion, a grave error of aesthetic judgment: http://www.bartleby.com/101/634.html

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Filed under Epic, Homer, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

Musings on the Aeneid – I

I will start by discussing one of my favourite lines in all of poetry.

Arva neque Ausoniae semper cedentia retro 
Quaerenda. 

(Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, 496 – 7)

My Fitzgerald translation has this down as:

No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.

Here is the full context: Aeneas has escaped from the sack of Troy, and has been charged with the burden of founding Rome (Virgil sums up the gravity of Aeneas’ task with another line, beautiful for its brevity – “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem” (Bk I, 33), translated by Fitzgerald as “so hard and huge/ A task it was to found the Roman people). He has been sailing the seas, seeking Italy, the pre-destined place, the only place where he can come to land permanently, and he has been meeting one peril and misfortune after another. At length he arrives in Epirus, where his kinsman Helenus has established himself, and rules in peace and plenty. He is also an augury, and he predicts a long and troubled journey for Aeneas before he can succeed in his task. When the time then comes to say farewell, Aeneas can scarce forbear to weep; and he laments:

‘Be happy, friends; your fortune is achieved,/ While one fate beckons us and then another./ Here is your quiet rest; no sea to plow,/ No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.‘”

In his beautiful article, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, Adam Parry cites this as one of the examples of a “private voice” in The Aeneid, that sets itself up in opposition to, and regularly subverts the dominant, commonly understood “public voice”, that is, the paean to Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire. In this line, the private voice suggests that although, of course, Aeneas will eventually reach Italy and establish Rome, in another, more meaningful sense, his labours are destined to have no ending, and, in Parry’s words, the “end… will see him as far from his fulfillment as his beginning. This other Italy will never cease receding into the distance.” (Parry, 1963). I’ll take the truth of this argument as my starting point.

Let me try to explain my response to this understanding of the lines by quoting one of my most-loved poets, Lord Byron, at his most Byronic:

Man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he cannot attain.”

This, of course, is the tragedy of Manfred, maybe of Childe Harold, in parts, and certainly of Byron, in his last poem, “On This Day, I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Byron’s words are simple, blunt, almost brutal – and for that reason, utterly compelling. Their power, I think, lies in the fact that they identify the truth, and present it to us unvarnished and unadorned. For anyone who has ever struggled with anything that seems greater than himself, be it the writing of a poem or the building of a bridge that for all its elegance, still seems incomplete in some unidentifiable way (take any other example here – details don’t matter) cannot, I feel, fail to be profoundly moved by this line. Camus understands this aspect of the human condition perfectly when he makes one of his characters, throughout all the pages of The Plague, struggle with the opening line of his planned novel, struggling for a perfection that he knows exists, but which always evades him, eludes him, flees from him even as he grasps futilely for it. He dies of plague before he can finish the first page.

What Byron achieves through a perfect phrase and Camus through a perfect example, Virgil does in an infinitely more powerful way – through a perfect image. In that one line and a bit, by presenting a single picture of your destination that is receding from you even as you’re striving to reach it, he enters your soul. The Ausonian fields are a metaphor for life. You are always striving, striving for that goal, that destination, a destination that, like those Ausonian fields, you know nothing about apart from the fact that you’re striving for it, and like the horizon, it always recedes from you, so that it doesn’t matter how fast and how long you run, how determined and resolute – or lucky – you are. There it is, at the edge of your vision, so that you always know that it exists, and you’re always reaching, trying, running (sigue corriendo!), and yet deep inside you, you’re aware of the Sisyphean futility of the endeavour, because the horizon will always remain as far away as it is when you begin.

And that, I think, sums up the greatness of Virgil. A single line and a word. A perfect image. And you come out of it deeply affected, deeply troubled, and deeply moved.

Of course, not all poets are so pessimistic. C.P. Cavafy, in his brilliant – and justly famous poem, Ithaka, compares life to Odysseus’ journey home after Troy. Only, Cavafy’s traveler faces no Scylla or Charybdis, no annoying sorceresses with a penchant for turning people into pigs, and no terrifying one-eyed cannibalistic monsters. On the contrary, there are summer mornings of pleasure and joy, when you discover new harbours, Phoenican traders with exquisite wares, and Egyptian cities with great scholars. And in the end, you do reach Ithaka, in your old age, and the journey has made you rich beyond your dreams.

It is a beautiful poem. Cavafy inspires and makes us dream. But Virgil, I feel, plumbs the truth.

Ithaka: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=74&cat=1

Byron on his 36th: http://www.alsintl.com/resources/poetry/on-this-day-i-complete-my-thirty-sixth-year/

They are both brilliant poems, although in very different ways. Much recommended

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Filed under Camus, Epic, Existentialism, Lord Byron, Romanticism, Virgil