Category Archives: Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

Oscar Wilde and Abanindranath Tagore

A few years ago, while wading through Oscar Wilde’s essays, I came across his discussion of the relationship between art and life in The Decay of the Art of Lying. Written in the form of a dialogue between Cyril (the interlocutor) and Vivian (the aesthete), the essay first lays out Wilde’s objections to the traditional Aristotelian aphorism, that “art imitates life”  (or, the allied claim, justifying naturalism/realism, that the role of art is to faithfully imitate life), because that “would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass.” Through Vivian, Wilde then develops his own counter-view, i.e., that “life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality.” Cyril is, naturally, disbelieving. Vivian explains:

“A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher… Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Scientifically speaking, the basis of life–the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – -is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained… Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”

I understand Wilde to be arguing that our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind, and that this mediation involves the process of imposing meaning (or patterns?) upon pure sense-impression. That, in turn, is derived from prior experiences and, primarily, experiences of art. In a sense, I think the argument is similar to the one about how language both creates and limits the possibilities of imagining and constructing the world. For instance, as this fascinating piece argues, part of the project of the Surrealist writers (through the idea of automatic language) was to ensure the liberation of the mind by causing “language, its traditional structure (syntax, morphology, semantics and phonology, to varying degrees) and expectations… to be destroyed and rebuilt… their words create a derangement of the senses (to borrow Rimbaud’s idea), and of the status quo, because the traditional order of language, of the written word, has been almost completely eviscerated.” Thus, also, later in the essay, Vivian memorably remarks, “I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also.

Today, while wandering through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, I came across a quotation by Abanindranath Tagore that reminded me powerfully and vividly of Wilde. Tagore writes:

“I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to the garden or a riverbank and start painting the tree, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you realise that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within. Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa’s poetry, ten lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the ever-fresh cloud messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki’s description of the sea and then proceed to paint a sea of your own.”

The similarities are interesting. Wilde and Tagore both take a categorically anti-realist position. Both of them think that what is all-important is beauty, and that beauty does not lie in the world, but in how we imagine the world through the medium of art. And they both argue that art is aesthetically anterior to the world, to nature, and to life. “Life imitates art.”

At the NGMA, Abanindranath Tagore’s style of painting was compared to expressionism. It set me thinking about the contrast with impressionism. Zola described Monet as opening “a window into nature.” It is written that for impressionism, ‘the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his vision.’ (Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists) So while the impressionists broke with tradition in attempting to capture movement and rhythm, “the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composd as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light, and life” (Mallarme), it was still an attempt at accurately representing the world. Expressionism aimed at the opposite effect. It made me wonder about the exact nature of the connection between Wilde’s aesthetics and expressionist art.



Filed under Aesthetics, Expressionism, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Oscar Wilde

Inter-textuality: Nasser and Marquez

One of the things I enjoy most, as a reader, is to spot how writers, separated in time, space, culture, and language – nonetheless often end up using very similar words and expressions to convey similar sentiments. The most spectacular form that this takes is using an identical image, but often, even non-imagery based similarities are quite striking. Recently, I read Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain, (a part of) Mario Vargas Llosa’s’ The Dream of the Celt and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and was, indeed, struck by the similarities between the Jordanian and the two Latin Americans.

Reflecting on nostalgia, Nasser writes:

Nostalgia amplifies things. The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.”


Or does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time?”

And in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez writes:

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

The similarities between these turns of phrase, and some of the best passages from Proust in Swann’s Way would also present an interesting study.

As I mentioned in my review, a large part of Land of No Rain is about split identities within the same person, to the point where the two narrative selves of the same narrator enter into conversation and argumentation with each other. Unfortunately, I did not take down a representative quote, but was intrigued when, at the beginning of The Dream of the Celt (which, just like Land of No Rain, is about revolution), Llosa quotes Jose Enrique Rodo:

Each one of us is not one, but many. And these successive personalities that emerge one from the other tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts among themselves.

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“This world is an orphanage for fallen stars”: narrative, war and orientalism in Ismail Kadare’s “The Siege”

A few months ago I read – and was utterly bewitched by – Ismail Kadare’s beautiful and complex explorations into oral epic and national culture in the wonderful The File on H (reviewed here). The Siege continues with some similar themes, dealing with the intertwined relationships between myth, war, history and the construction of a national narrative. Brilliant as Kadare is at this, The Siege also has, I believe, some serious problem: both in terms of its formal characteristics as a work of literature and, insofar as the two can be separated, its politics – problems that undermine its value as a work of art. So let me try to explain.

The Siege is a novel about an Ottoman Army’s attempts to besiege and capture an unnamed borderland Albanian fortress, at an unnamed time. Somewhere towards the end of the book, the army’s architect is called away to the capital to prepare for the assault on Constantinople; since Constantinople fell in 1453, we can fix the approximate date of events as 1450, which would put it right in the middle of the Ottoman Empire-Albania wars, about twenty years before the ultimate defeat of the Albanian kingdom. What is particularly interesting about The Siege is that the story, written by an Albanian writer, writing at the time of a fever pitch of nationalism (the 1960s, during the height of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime), is nonetheless told from the point of view of the Turks, the invading army – in particular, from the perspective of the Turkish chronicler, Mevla Celebi, and detailing – apart from the events of the siege – the interactions and conversations between a few of his close friends in the army. The perspectives of the Christian soldiers in the fortress are, on the other hand, told through the account of one unnamed warrior, occurring as brief, one-page interludes between chapters. Ostensibly, then, this is about the war as seen by the separate, individual participants of one side – the side that the reader is not expected to sympathise with, either in the abstract, or in the concrete context of the writing of this novel. That, in itself, makes it unique.

The first, striking thing that one must mention about Kadare, I suppose, is his use of language. His use of adjectives and verbs to establish image and atmosphere is brilliant. In particular, it is the economy and precision of his language – and the corresponding swiftness and accuracy of the vision that it imposes upon the reader’s mind – that is particularly worthy of comment. “A faint glow,” he tells us, was “leaking out of the tents.” Banners “swim like flotsam over the turbid ocean of soldiers.” There are people who are “craftsmen in the rotting and corroding of nations.” And this, one of the best descriptions of a battle-scene that I have read, astoundingly effective in its very sparseness and brevity:

A thick pall of yellowish dust obscured parts of the tableau from time to time, just as it revealed others more horrible as it slowly moved away on the wind.

Demystification seems to be a common theme with Eastern European writers, living as they did under brutal Stalinist regimes that depended, for their survival, on maintaining false consciousness through myth, allegory and narrative. Many passages in The Siege are strongly reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. While Kundera wants to demystify love and revolution, Kadare’s theme is war. As Mevla watches war preparations at the beginning of the siege, he thinks to himself that “… no chronicle ever mentioned the tying and untying of soldiers’ backpacks. As for flea-hunting, that was never spoken of either… pay was also never mentioned in that kind of narrative.” This theme is repeated throughout the novel. Beautiful images of the army are turned into the language of flotsam and jestam. And right at the very end, when an attempt to take the fortress by introducing the plague into it through infected animals has failed, the doctor tells Mevla, with some degree of bitterness:  “I’m sure you’ll manage not to write about rats in your chronicle” – accepting, as it is, the fact that chronicles and accounts portray an aestheticised, romanticised vision of war that is fundamentally at odds with the grimy, dirty business that it actually is. Kadare is unsparing even in death: as the commander goes to his, “he would have liked to have thought a sublime thought, but he could not.” War is ignominious – and so is death.

Much like in The File on H, Kadare is at his best when dealing with how myth and narrative intertwine with politics and the construction of a national identity. As the siege wears on, the Turks wonder why the Albanians – led by their charismatic and mysterious leader, Skanderberg – are bent upon a resistance that is so evidently futile. Not so the Quartermaster-general of the Turkish army, who understands Skanderberg’s motivations only too well:

“He’s in the process of achieving an uncommon exploit… an extraordinary exploit… just now I was telling you about the heavens where people put their relics for safekeeping… well, as from now, that man is aiming for the heavens… I don’t know if you get my meaning. He’s trying to create a second Albania, outside anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania. So that when one day this Albania, the terrestrial one, falls to the Empire, that other, ghostly Albania, its shadow-self, will go on wandering among the clouds… do you see what I mean? He’s devoted himself to a task which almost nobody has ever thought of before… how to reuse a defeat. Or, to put it another way, the eternal recycling of defeat in battle… you see Mevla, he’s trying to oblige us to fight his shadow. To vanquish a ghost, so to speak, the image of his own defeat. But how can you overcome a defeat, a rout? It’s like trying to hollow out a ravine. It already is hollow! You could make no different to it, whereas you could yourself fall into it…” 

The idea, of course, is that resistance – even futile, doomed resistance – engenders a narrative that exists parallel to physical conquest, and is bound to outlast it. Almost perversely, it is the inevitability of conquest and the futility of physical resistance that ensures that the narrative itself is more tightly-knit, stronger and built to endure for longer. And it is that narrative that creates something that did not exist before it, before its own creation out of an unequal battle – an Albania that goes beyond physical borders, rocks, trees, stones, rivers, an agglomeration of human beings – but rather, an Albania that exists in legends, stories and songs, a collection of narratives bound together by the common theme of resisting an invincible enemy, a theme that coheres and unites them, and constructs a unified Albania – an Albania that, because it only exists in the collective mind of the people (a collectivity that in itself has come into being because of the way that the narrative has been shaped out of communal resistance) is, by its very nature, indestructible. The Quartermaster-General understands precisely what is at stake, therefore, when he speaks of their plans after completing the physical conquest:

“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”

Because language, of course (not religion, but language) – and, in particular, written language is what ensures the continuity and coherence of the narrative, and thus, in turn, the continued indestructibility of Albania, dormant but not dead, only suppressed until the time comes when the physical conditions are right once more. As the Quartermaster-General points out, that is the only way in which Skanderberg can win – with a timeframe that spans generations:

For the moment he is dragging Albania into the abyss, believing that he is making his nation unattainable, in his own image, by making it also pass out of its own time, into another dimension. He may well be right. It would be pointless for us to try to separate Skanderberg from Albania. Even if we wanted to we would not be able to do it… what he’s working towards is to give Albania a cloud of invulnerability, to give it a form which casts it up and beyond the vicissitudes of the present – a metaform, it I may say, which makes it able to resucitate… he is trying to crucify Albania, as their God was crucified, so that like Christ, Albania will be resurrected. He doesn’t care whether it is on the third day, the third century, or the third millennium after his death… what matters is his vision of the future.

So, just as the very crucifixion of Christ ensured his immortality by ensuring the construction of a myth around his person, so too does the (physical) crucifixion of Albania in battle ensure its own survival until the time of resurrection.

One last point about the positive qualities of this book ought, I believe, to be mentioned: the details of the siege are meticulously – even painstakingly – researched, and presented with a fine attention to detail. As a piece of military history, it makes for fine reading.

Now, on to the problems. The most glaring, in my opinion, is the characterisation (or lack thereof). At no point, it seems to me, thus Kadare attempt to make us care about his primary characters. We are not told their back-stories. We are told very little about their thoughts and perceptions outside of their observations of the siege, and themes associated with that. They are, of course, individuals – make no mistake about that – but individuals with whom it is very difficult to sympathise, whose tragedies it is difficult to be moved by, whose joys it is nearly impossible to share in, because we simply do not know them well enough to feel for them. Perhaps that is the idea – again, considering the context – but it makes for bad novelistic practice, especially because the event itself (a military siege) is fairly commonplace (unless you’re a historically -inclined Albanian with a nationalistic streak).

But now, onto a more serious problem. Kadare’s work betrays, at many points, a near-shockingly uncritical application of some of the most common Orientalist tropes. The work of Edward Said, in particular, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, provides a particularly acute critical vision. To the most serious charge that Said lays against the Orientalists, Kadare is not guilty – he does not reduce his orientals to a nameless, faceless mass – his story does have individuals (not very well-drawn individuals, as I suggested above, but individuals nonetheless). But that is where the good news ends. Viciousness, cruelty, tyranny, irrationalism, unpredictably and mysticism – all qualities attributed to the “East”, as Said demonstrates, in order to contrast it to the more Occidental – and perceivedly superior – qualities such as rationality, self-discipline, enlightened free thought – are in full play. The pre-War battle dance of the dervishes is described with all the fascinated horror of a Richard Burton in Mecca; show-trials and random executions, expressly for the purpose of maintaining army morale, become more and more frequent as time goes on, with the express involvement of some of the most sympathetic and intelligent Turk characters, such as the Quartermaster-General (compare this, for instance, with how two of the Christian soldiers are only sent to jail for raising their weapons against each other right in the middle of the siege). The strict hierarchical nature and instances of personal tyranny abound; it is no surprise, therefore, that there comes a time when the mask falls, and we find this statement:

“What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity, a dark grave ready to swallow us all.”

This could be right out of a Said book, the part where he demonstrates through examples. Of course, one may argue that this is actually said by one of the Chritisn soldiers, and Kadare in no need subscribe to this view – but much like the similar response made to claims of Joseph Conrad’s racism, the critical point is that Kadare makes absolutely no effort to dissociate the writer’s voice – his own voice – from the expression of such opinions, and such absence must be taken to mean at least implied, tacit support. And such a crude usage of the most unsubtle of orientalist tropes makes for, I think, a serious weakness in the book as a whole.

Nonetheless, and despite such misgivings – the book is most certainly worth a read – especially after The File on H.


Filed under Albania, Edward Said, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Postcolonial Theory

An Addendum to Nietzsche and language: The Poetry of e.e. cummings

One impression that I get from Nietzsche’s writings on language – previously rambled about here – is not only that language is a perpetually incomplete striving-towards an richer, deeper unnamed reality (“rainbow-bridges”), but also that it is an attempt to impose an artificial sense of order, structure and form upon something that perennially resists classification and taxonomy, an attempt to bind, to limit, to chart the boundaries of, to identify and define (and so, perhaps, control?) something that, by its very nature, is free of any such human constraints. The two points are similar and linked, and are also in some way connected to (my interpretation of) the upshot of Auden’s own musings on the point – the deceptively simple conclusion that some things can only be experienced – and nothing more.

I think that through the following poem, e.e. cummings makes this point rather well:

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Different parts of this poem are memorable and striking for different reasons, but focusing in particular on the first stanza, and upon the emphasised lines: when cummings says that “feeling is first“, I think he means two things by the word “first”: not only “first” in the sense of chronological priority (that is, feeling comes before we attempt to find the words, or the language, to express it), but also in the sense of normative priority, that is, feeling is in some way superior to (richer? deeper?) or takes precedence over, expression of that feeling. And so, attention to syntax, the way of constructing sentences in language, is tantamount to degrading or trivialising feeling by trying to pigeonhole it into constructed categories and labels; perhaps, diluting its intensity by imposing an artificial order upon it, by forcing it to conform to established limits and definitions. Don’t describe. Just kiss.

I think that this idea permeates much of cummings’ aesthetic vision. Out of the many poems to choose from – because I am always a sucker for impassioned love poems – consider this:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

It isn’t as explicit as the opening stanza of “since feeling is first”, but I think that the same idea is at play here: cummings’ eschewal of formal metre and structure, of a coherent expression of feeling, and even, at times, of grammar – stems out of (or so I’d like to believe) an aesthetic conviction that you cannot impose order upon love.

There are similarities between cummings and the fractured verse employed by the first wave modernist poets, in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But I think, also, that there is an important difference: the fractured verse of Prufrock, for instance (at least I understand it), is designed to capture accurately through the use of the disjointed form – the disjointed thoughts of Prufrock as well as the disjointedness of life in the 20th century. cummings’ cut-up form and broken verse, on the other hand, are employed in the service of a specific aesthetic vision that rejects ordinary language’s attempts to capture beauty because of its imposition of artificial form and structure – and indeed, seeks for that beauty by an attempt to directly transcribe the feelings in question, without any form of constraint.

I recognise, of course, that the difference between the two schools is far more fluid than the above, schematic distinction seems to suggest. But I think that there is a difference, and that cummings’ poetry is very interesting to engage with, keeping in mind that he has a specific idea of beauty, and about how and where to find it.


Filed under e.e. cummings, Nietzsche

Two Views on the Nature of Language – An Addendum: Ars Poetica

While browsing this blog, I came across this 1971 essay by the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. It is short but incisive, and the first page, in particular, resonated with me quite powerfully.

Brooks opens with:

“One can sum up modern poetic technique by calling it the rediscovery of metaphor and the full commitment to metaphor. The poet can legitimately step out into the universal only by first going through the narrow door of the particular. The poet does not select an abstract theme and then embellish it with concrete details. On the contrary, he must establish the details, must abide by the details, and through his realization of the details attain to whatever general meaning he can attain. The meaning must issue from the particulars; it must not seem to be arbitrarily forced upon the particulars.”


“The commitment to metaphor thus implies, with respect to general theme, a principle of indirection. With respect to particular images and statements, it implies a principle of organic relationship. That is, the poem is not a collection of beautiful or “poetic” images. If there really existed objects which were somehow intrinsically “poetic,” still the mere assemblage of these would not give us a poem. For in that case, one might arrange bouquets of these poetic images and thus create poems by formula. But the elements of a poem are related to each other, not as blossoms juxtaposed in a bouquet, but as the blossoms are related to the other parts of a growing plant. The beauty of the poem is the flowering of the whole plant, and needs the stalk, the leaf, and the hidden roots.”

Although Brooks is employing an entirely different set of images and metaphors, I think that there is a lot in these two paragraphs that resembles Auden’s view of poetry, that I discussed in my last post. The “universal“, the “abstract theme“, the (possibility of) objects that are “intrinsically poetic” – all this recalls to mind Auden’s idea of the sacred, to which our only response (which cannot be described further, or more accurately) is of “imaginative awe”. So the reason why poetic language must apply metaphors and particulars is because it does not – how could it? – seek to define or describe the imaginative awe (thus I’m not entirely sure if Brooks’ use of the term “indirection” is an entirely happy one).

The further reason why poetry cannot simply be a collection of “poetic images” is because that would be tantamount to an exercise of translation, trying to generate in us the imaginative awe by reporting a set of experiences that have, in the past, generated it in others. That, of course, is a futile attempt. It must, on the contrary, be an organic whole, because order, balance, harmony and symmetry are what awaken in us a sense of beauty through form, and that is the primary aim of poetry.

This reminds me of a poem that we once read in school, and which now, the more poetry I read, speaks to me the more powerfully:

Ars Poetica

– Archibald Macleish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.


Filed under Archibald Macleish, Cleanth Brooks

Two Views on the Nature of Language: Nietzsche and Auden

That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” says Nietzsche. “There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Language, then, is a substitute for the inexpressibly rich and the unfathomably deep. It is a perpetual reaching-forth towards something (beauty? love? truth?) that recedes even as we attempt to trap it in the web of our words. It is translation, and something is always lost when we translate. It is a faded window onto the world, into our hearts. And it is associated with a kind of suffering that is born out of a sense of incompleteness, a sense that no matter how hard we try, no matter how beautifully and evocatively we use the language that we have, the inexpressible (truth or beauty, the Grecian urn would say they are one) remains ever elusive, beyond our grasp; something that we have access to through sensation, feeling and imagination, but which disappear the moment we try to know it, or even worse, to communicate it to others through the only medium we have – our language.  

Although Nietzsche’s own position is more subtle and complex, he does express this thought in a series of dazzling aphorisms. In S. 296 of Beyond Good and Evil:

What then do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brush, we immortalisers of things which LEND themselves to writing, what are we alone capable of painting? Alas, only that which is just about to fade and begins to lose its odour! Alas, only exhausted and departing storms and belated yellow sentiments! Alas, only birds strayed and fatigued by flight, which now let themselves be captured with the hand—with OUR hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer, things only which are exhausted and mellow!”  

A slightly different sentiment from S. 423, The Dawn of Day:

Alas! the silence deepens, and once again my heart swells within me: it is startled by a fresh truth—it, too, is dumb; it likewise sneers when the mouth calls out something to this beauty; it also enjoys the sweet malice of its silence. I come to hate speaking; yea, even thinking. Behind every word I utter do I not hear the laughter of error, imagination, and insanity? Must I not laugh at my pity and mock my own mockery? Oh sea, oh evening, ye are bad teachers! Ye teach man how to cease to be a man. Is he to give himself up to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, brilliant, dumb, immense, reposing calmly upon himself?—exalted above himself?”

And perhaps most eloquently, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (“The Convalescent”): 

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated? To each soul belongeth another world; to each soul is every other soul a back-world. Among the most alike doth semblance deceive most delightfully: for the smallest gap is most difficult to bridge over. For me—how could there be an outside-of-me? There is no outside! But this we forget on hearing tones; how delightful it is that we forget!”

I find the imagery of rainbow-bridges particularly poignant. Who hasn’t read about the futile, yearning chase for the pot of fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow, the continuous chase towards the ever-receding goal? Is that, then, the character of language? A continuing yet useless attempt to build a bridge between each individual’s eternally isolated world, a gloss upon our solitude, an anodyne of forgetfulness? Something always incomplete, partial… secondary?

Auden has a different view, one that he expresses in Making, Knowing and Judging, his inaugural lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. At the beginning, he quotes Valery on poetry:

“The power of verse [writes Valery] is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition. The harmony ought not to be definable; when it can be defined it is imitative harmony and that is not good. The impossibility of defining the relation, together with the impossibility of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line.”

Auden cites this to support his point that what distinguishes poetry from prose is that in poetry it matters what particular word is associated with an idea, whereas in prose, it is a question of arbitrary convention. Leaving that aside, if we read “what it says” to refer to form and language, and “what it is” to the unspoken, unexpressed (because inexpressible) idea that gives rise to it (and I understand that this is probably not how Auden or Valery understand the statement), then we have a position where language (in this case, through poetry) isn’t an exercise of translation at all, or an attempt to capture the essence of the inexpressible in a second-best manner.

This sounds rather obscure, and I’m not sure about what it really means, myself. But here’s Auden, towards the end of his lecture, providing his own “theory” of poetry. Drawing from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, he says that there are two kinds of imagination: primary and secondary. The primary imagination is concerned with “sacred beings and sacred events”, and the secondary with the profane. What is a sacred being? It is what I have been so far referring to as the inexpressible. It is one that cannot be anticipated, but must be encountered, and on encountering it, the primary imagination has no option but to respond. “The impression made upon the imagination,” says Auden, “By any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance-an unchangeable quality, an Identity…”

This sounds obscure as well, but it is greatly clarified by this quotation from Charles Williams:

“One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence…. Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express . . . but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round.”

And Auden himself:

“The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repuIsive – a swan or an octopus – beautiful or ugly – a toothless hag or a fair young child – good or eviI- a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans Merci – historical fact or fiction – a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream – it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary Imagination is without freedom, sense of time or humor. Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art. Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death… One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has to be converted.”

And that, especially the last line, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Which of us hasn’t looked upon a full moon sailing through the cloud-curtain, and responded in an intensely powerful, yet utterly indefinable way? And if someone asks us why we respond in that way, is it possible to make any response but “Can’t you see it?” If someone asks me what I find so profoundly moving about the opening of Dies Irae in Mozart’s Requiem, any answer I make based on musical theory, on harmony or balance, will seem forced, constrained and inadequate – it is, as Auden says, a question of being converted, not taught.

Auden contrasts the primary imagination with the secondary imagination.

“The Secondary Imagination is of another character and at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its categories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful and ugly… Beauty and ugliness pertain to Form not to Being… the Secondary Imagination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance and mess.”

One of the important characteristics of the secondary imagination is that “is social and craves agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and you think it ugly, we cannot both help agreeing that one of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing the matter.”

And then, most crucially:

“The impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.”


“The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure and aptness to that which it is the form of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred and profane worlds differ.”


“Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate anyone sacred being or event to any other. The relation may be harmonious, an ironic contrast or a tragic contradiction like the great man, or the beloved? and death; he can relate them to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, reason and conscience, and he can bring them into contact and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can be happy, ironic, tragic and, in relation to the profane, comic… But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to the language, he need not name them directly unless he wishes; he can describe one in terms of another and translate those that are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as are acceptable to reason and society.”

And, in conclusion:

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”

I think the crucial point that Auden is making is that while poetry is “rooted” in imaginative awe – it is not – and language is not – an exercise in direct translation, an attempt to “recapture” imaginative awe, as it were. Imaginative awe a certain kind of response (of the primary imagination, but the terminology is not important) to a certain kind of being or event (the sacred); and through language and poetry (and other forms of art), we seek to evoke a different kind of response – a response of pleasure, perhaps, to form, symmetry, harmony, balance, rhythm – and all those elements which go into making up our conception of beauty, and a response that is not private but social.

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

Nothing of great import hinges upon the distinction, of course, but it might be interesting to think about it as we examine our relationship to that which is inexpressible, and our undying attempts to express it nonetheless.


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Nietzsche, W.H. Auden

A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

“The droplets of condensation on the window pane reminded her of tears on a tragic-comic mask…”

Oral poetry fascinates me. In particular, I’ve always found the story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pathbreaking investigations into the origins of the Homeric epic – that I wrote about here – spellbinding. So when, in Aeneid lectures this week, the professor informed us that Ismail Kadare’s (a name I was hearing for the first time) The File on H was an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the oral epic, I promptly issued it from the Balliol library.

A quick google reveals that Kadare is considered to be the foremost Albanian writer and poet of the 20th century (whatever that might mean or signify), and that he won the inaugural Man Booker International Award in 2005. Here is the blurb:

Society in rural Albania had evolved little since the Middle Ages. What better place in which two Irish-American scholars might study the tradition of oral poetry, in the hope of understanding how Homeric epics came to be composed and handed down, to elucidate the strange commerce between memory and forgetting. The small country town through which they pass, and the remote inn that serves as their base, are not left unaffected, however, by their presence: the society ladies, and not least the restless and ambitious wife of the Governor, insist on having their due; the Governor himself is under instructions from the Minister for the Interior to spy on the scholars’ activities, which are assumed to be an insidious form of espionage; and the notion of trapping the speech of the traveling rhapsodes in their new-fangled tape-recorder excites fear and outrage in a country where even a person’s shadow, let alone his voice, is considered capable of capture and annihilation. The two simple, dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ant’s nest…

This is a brilliant book. In it, the bleakness of Kafka meets the laughter of Wodehouse; the unsparing psychological portraits of Maupassant mingle with the surrealism of Garcia Marquez; and the whole work is shot through with a wistful yearning for days past, a brooding reflection on memory and loss, and a dirge for the breaking of things.

As the blurb suggests, the story is a fictional re-telling of the Parry-Lord journey to central Europe to solve the Homeric question by examining a living oral epic tradition. Of course, while Parry and Lord went to Bosnia, Max and Bill, their (fictional) equivalents, journey to Albania. But, just like Parry and Lord, they too carry with them the recently-invented tape-recording technology, desperate to salvage something of a dying tradition, in the last place where it yet survives, before it is gone forever.

Kadare begins with a series of acute portrayals of life in a provincial Albanian town, with all its dreariness, weariness and ennui, a world seen most starkly through the eyes of the deeply frustrated wife of the governor.

“She picked up the telephone under her customary cloud of melancholy, condensed from dozens of disappointments when, on hearing the same bell ring, she had rushed to it in the hope of hearing some really uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to hear through the perforated Bakelite her husband’s trivial interrogations…”

And when the news of the foreigners first arrives:

“…and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite – into a day full of surprise and mystery…”

Setting off a rapid chain of fantasising:

“… and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called “Jealousy…”


She ran back to the phone but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster’s wife she felt the need to savour it all alone for a little longer…”


“Chaotically, without seeking to make her mind keep to any logical sequence, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him, but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial emotions, exhaustively and sophisticatedly (rivalry, exacerbated jealous etc.) before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill.”

And for the governor himself:

Good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?


with his early-evening smile upon his face…

The characterisation is sparse, spare, almost like – to use a pet analogy of mine – an impressionist painting, leaving the reader to complete the vision with his mind’s eye. And, like the best of impressionist paintings, it is utterly compelling.

Things begin to get complicated when spies are deputed to watch the movements of the Irishmen, suspected as they are (as all foreigners are) of unknown and unknowably nefarious purposes. Here is where we begin to get drawn into a Kafka-esque world of the infinite State with its labyrinthine machines and machinations, but unlike Kafka, Kadare is relentlessly humorous; his spies and his provincial officials are so puffed up, so taken in by their own sense of self-importance, so utterly mock-Machiavellian, that it is impossible to be bogged down by the crushing inevitability of individual destruction that accompanies The Castle or The Trial. Of course, the shadow of secret police, show trials, purges and darkness at noon is ever-present in the background, and a distinct sense of unease pervades the novel, but it never grows to define it. So, consider:

“He tried to get “notwithstanding” into his report three times over, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to get it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times over with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “oh, oh,” he groaned aloud. A vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway, he added by way of self-consolation, flowers also grow better on dunghills. “

And then, with these two themes playing in the background, as Max and Bill arrive in the old inn at the crossroads of the rhapsodes’ ways, we begin to slip into the theme of epic. We are informed, early on, about how their project is not simply a work of detached, academic investigation into the Homeric question. Rather:

“For more than a thousand years, Albanians and Slavs had been in ceaseless conflict in this area. They had quarreled over everything – over land, over boundaries, over pastures and watering holes, and it would have been entirely unsurprising had they also disputed the ownership of local rainbows. And as if that were not enough, they were also squabbling over the ancient epics which existed, just to make things completely intractable, in both languages, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the two people asserted that it had created the epic, leaving the other nation the choice of being considered either a thief or a mere imitator.”

And, as Bill reminds Max, their work on Homer plunges them right into the conflict, working on a question, as they are, that will decide the controversy of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula. If, as they suspect, they find evidence linking the Albanian epic to the Greek, then it is proof that Albanian were present in the Balkans during classical times, and certainly before the Serbo-Croats. Epic poetry will become a formidable weapon in political conflict.

As the Irishmen’s work goes on, we are taken deeper into the nuances of oral epic poetry. We are introduced to the core of the oral tradition, the formulaic epithet, that tool both of memory and of metre:

What shifts and what stays fixed in epic poetry? Is there an unchanging core of material that ensures the integrity of the art-form over the centuries?… up to now we believed that the anchoring role was played by the figures of speech, the models or fixed forms of the language, or, to put it another way, the basic moulds into which epic material was poured… so we were convinced that the ancient laboratory’s linguistic equipment, which was itself unchanging, guaranteed the homogeneity of its poetic production. 

That is the standard Parry-Lord thesis. But, as Bill and Max find out, even the formulae are subject to change, albeit slowly and incrementally. And it is linked, in the end, to the art of forgetting – what prevents the epic from attrition – or dissolution – is the individual rhapsode’s ability to both remember and forget – to add as well as subtract from the corpus available to him.

“How are we going to know why and by what mysterious means a line that has been forgotten and shrouded in darkness for years may emerge into the light once again? And that’s leaving aside the fact that the phenomenon occurs not just within the repertoire of an individual rhapsode, but, as if carried along by a subterranean stream, an omitted line can be restored by some other rhapsode in a different time and place. Epic fragments seem able to climb out of the gave where the bard’s body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another’s song, as if death had not changed them at all.”

I think what’s important about the passage is its re-emphasis on an idea that cannot be stressed enough: assumptions of individuality and authorship, assumptions that we bring unthinkingly to our reading of written texts, simply don’t apply to the oral tradition which is, in a very Eliotic sense, a “tradition“. The image of a stream, a stream of epic that flows through time and space, borne along by the currents of its own logic, independent of individual efforts to dam or direct it, is a very striking one. As the scholars recognise, at another point, while they muse upon the history of epic poetry:

They thought that if Homer’s version of the Iliad had not been written down and subsequently published, then it too could easily have been fragmented and then been reassembled later on into a quite different shape. The cycles of condensation and dissolution of this kind of epic poetry must have some resemblance to the cycles of creation, fragmentation and re-creation of possible worlds from cosmic dust… more and more, epic poetry seemed to the like a kind of poetical galaxay under the sway of mysterious forces.

So much for that. As the reader approaches the book – especially a reader aware of the work of Parry and Lord, he is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the project. Saving – rescuing – salvaging – preserving for posterity – these are the things that come to mind when one contemplates what Bill and Max are trying to do. They are trying to keep a dying tradition alive by recording the songs of the last of the oral rhapsodes.

And yet, is it truly that simple? At the end of the first recording, when the Irishmen – and we – are flushed with a sense of triumph, of having participated in a great and memorable moment, of having set out on the road to making a fundamental contribution to the world’s heritage, we are given the first, faint sense of something being wrong. Because, when they play back the recorder, and the rhapsode’s now-artificial voice fills the room, Bill and Max feel that:

There was something quite horrifying about this disconnection, this removal of a man from the attributes which give him his distinct and independent existence. 

But what, precisely, is so horrifying about this? I don’t think that this is a point about imitation in general, but is uniquely characteristic of oral poetry. That is because, as I discussed earlier, when writing on Parry-Lord, the “distinct and independent existence” of the performer is one of the cornerstones of oral poetry. There is no original, no standard, no text; on the contrary, each performance is an act of creation, and each performer an author many times over. And this, of course, changes fundamentally with the advent of a device like the tape-recorder. As Kadare writes:

The rhapsodist is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller and librarian all at once, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend the text. It’s perfectly legal, no-one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him for doing so, except perhaps his own conscience.  

Of course, I have serious reservations about using the word “text” and “amend” at all (I wonder if something’s been lost in translation), because we know from Parry and Lord that in oral poetry, there is no such thing as a “text”, and consequently, no such thing as an “amendation” (since you need a standard to amend). But that minor quibble apart, what changes with the advent of the tape-recorder is precisely what changes with the advent of the written word – the creation of a model, a standard. And as Parry and Lord tell us, the written word destroyed the oral. Ex hypothesi, does not a recording device serve exactly the same function as the written word?

At some points, the thought occurs to Bill and Max themselves:

On other occasions they told themselves that oral epic could only ever exist in the scattered form in which they found it, and they there were betraying and altering their material by trying to put its pieces together. In that way of thinking, oral recitation was less like a poetic entity than a medieval order… 

And certainly, to the locals. This, from a conversation:

“This machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up is voice. It’s like when you wall up a man’s shadow. He wilts and dies. That’s what happens to him. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m only a foreigner myself, my land and my Serbian songs are far away in a safe place, but I deplore what’s going on for your sake. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They’ll mow down all those old songs that are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You’ll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert and you’ll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile, those devils will have fled far away. They’ll have robbed you of everything, and you’ll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives.”

Normally, we would be inclined to give this short shrift, since the conversation occurs in a deeply political context, and the monologue is clearly motivated by nationalist fervour. Nonetheless, Kadare has destabilised our conceptions enough, by now, to make us wonder: could there actually be a kernel of truth in this? Can the nature of oral poetry ever remain the same once it has been recorded? Even if, like Parry and Lord, like Bill and Max, your purpose is to preserve as much as you can, as many versions of the same story (does that even make grammatical sense in the context of oral poetry) – because what you’ll have at the end of that is multiple standards/models, but standards and models nonetheless.

Is the very idea of “preservation” antithetical to the essence of oral poetry? 

And does that mean that if oral poetry is dying, we are faced with the grim choice of either letting it die or, by preserving it, change its fundamental character – so that oral poetry is dead anyway? And what ought we to do.

Kadare is profoundly ambivalent on this point, an ambivalence that is summed up towards the end, as Bill and Max reflect on their work:

Whereas they had previously despaired at the dispersion of the Albanian epic tradition, they now felt reassured that the entire corpus was in good order. What to begin with had seemed like shards scattered through space and time, as ungraspable as the mane of rainbows, as wind and burnt dust, and quite impossible to collect, was now locked in numbered metal reel cases. Sometimes it seemed hard to credit that they had managed to tame all that hatred and all that passion. 

As the underlined phrases suggest – and as the images of “locking” and “taming”, as opposed to “ungraspable” signify – the soul of oral poetry lies in its resistance to being caught, labeled, classified, pinned down, defined. Once you do accomplish that, you lose something precious.

What conclusions, then, are we meant to draw about the project? At times it seems absurd to even begin to doubt, to doubt the value of Parry-Lord’s work, and the worth of their discoveries, their contribution to our knowledge about a great field of human endeavour. But Kadare makes us wonder. And the ending – which I won’t spoil here – only serves to make the ambivalence deeper and more profound.

As is the case with the best of books, you can’t quite sleep at night after having turned the last page.

Kadare’s Wiki entry:

The File on H:

The opening page:



Filed under Albania, Epic, European Writing, Homer, Ismail Kadare, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

I’ve just returned from watching a stupendous Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night at West End. I haven’t read Twelfth Night for a while, and watching the play tonight, at a couple of points, I caught myself thinking of a few issues of inter-textuality.

It’s interesting how the intertwined themes of youth, time, aging, love, death and immortality occur and recur throughout the corpus of Shakespeare’s work – obsessively, almost. Sonnets 1 – 17 are collectively known as “the procreation sonnets“, and follow a common theme: Shakespeare accuses the youth of wanton cruelty, both to himself and to the world, for refusing to marry and bear children; because time will, eventually, erase and deface his beauty, and the only way in which it is possible to defeat time’s work is by begetting a son who will bear the youth’s image in the world, once he himself has become old and decrepit. So, Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The very famous Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And one of my personal favourites, Sonnet XVI:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Shakespeare’s brooding, melancholic preoccupation with time and mortality and their destruction of all beauty, has been familiar to me through his sonnets, where these themes form a very self-contained whole. But tonight, I started when I heard the identical sentiment voiced in Twelfth Nigh, this cry of anguish from Viola as she attempts to persuade the hard-hearted Olivia to accept the Duke Orsino’s suit:

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy(Twelfth Night, Act I Sc V)

Here again, you have the language of the sonnets: praise of beauty, anger at the beauteous one’s unwillingness to marry and procreate, and an affirmation that the only way to defeat time is through producing the likeness of your beauty in your children. I now wonder how often this theme recurs in this way throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

The second issue, even more interesting. Consider this famous wooing scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi:

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.

And Maria’s imitated letter, in the hand of Olivia, to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,

Ignoring for a moment that one is a dialogue, and the other a letter, there are some striking similarities in content (in Shakespeare’s case, let us suspend our knowledge of the farce for a moment). Both are instances of high-born women taking the (rare) initiative to initiate proceedings through a declaration of love, since they know that the difference in social hierarchy between themselves and the men they love will always prevent him from making the first move. Both contain very similar imagery, and the exhortation to the man that “his life is made“, if only he will overcome his inhibitions and take what is offered. And indeed, the two even use similar vocabulary, albeit in different contexts: “born great” is a striking phrase present in both.

Twelfth Night was performed in 1602, and The Duchess of Malfi ten years later. I suppose it is probable that Webster was well-aware of Twelfth Night, and consciously or sub-consciously modeled the essence of his scene on Shakespeare’s prototype. Of course, there is one crucial difference: in Twelfth Night, the fake letter is a device of the comic form, and is the starting point for some of the most farcical and hilarious incidents in the play. On the other hand, the parallel scene in Malfi is the foundation of all the tragic events that follow – you couldn’t possibly have a more serious scene, more gravitas, than when the Duchess decides to woo Antonio. So, same motifs – but in entirely different contexts.

This, I think, lets us reflect upon fascinating issues of inter-textuality and allusive reference within literary traditions. Allusion was the stock-in-trade of the classic scholars, and from what I’ve read, it served broadly two purposes: it allowed the poet to place himself within the tradition – and thus, in a sense, define himself (in a relatively stable way) to his readers; by referencing known and established authors of a canon, the poet defined his genre, placed at least approximate limits upon the scope of his creative exercise, and generated certain specific expectations of form and content within his readers. But in changing the context of the allusion, and thus making it mean or signify something different, the poet also established his own individuality and unique voice for the reader.

Here, as in most things classical, Virgil leads the way. Right from the opening line, “Arms and the man, I sing…“, which, in a dual reference to The Iliad (“arms”) and The Odyssey (“the man”) establishes that The Aeneid is going to be both a war-epic and a quest-epic, Virgil’s epic is full of allusions to Homer, to Ennius, and to all the other epic poets of note. And Virgil, as I’ve noted on a few occasions before, is master of subversion and defamiliarisation. It would be the subject of a full, separate post to go into the complexity of the allusions in The Aeneid (and I am only just about competent to skim the surface), but I think that even this much is enough for us to think seriously about our ideas of authorship, of originality, and of where the point lies in literature. Is it that when one writer has come up with a motif, or a theme, or a particular treatment of it, that we ought to recognise it as his, and to castigate others who incorporate it into their own works as lacking in originality? Or ought we to regard those motifs and everything else as part of the tradition, and simply judge a writer on the basis of how well he uses them? In his essay, What Is An Author?, Foucault points out that the idea of single, individual authorship in the strong sense as we know it is an invention of the modern world. Perhaps that explains the allusion-heavy, intertextual nature many classic writings; and also explains why, in responses to allegations of plagiarism, Virgil was able to reply, blandly, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer” – because it didn’t really matter whether he had used the same words or images, or motifs, or even themes as Homer – what mattered was how well The Aeneid read, how good an epic it was. Perhaps, then, there is no given, a priori, in-the-nature-of-things reason for our convictions about individuality, authorship and originality to be as they are (they certainly weren’t this way in the genre of oral epics, for instance). Perhaps we ought to think about them as deeply and as carefully as we think about, say, the ethical dimensions of writing literature; and perhaps, if we find that there is no basis or warrant for them, we ought to modify, or even discard, these basic notions with which we, now, approach all our texts.

The Duchess of Malfi

Twelfth Night:


Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Epic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Shakespeare, Virgil

Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

Earlier, I wrote about how, in the best of Baudelaire’s poems, he brings out with unrestrained clarity and starkness, through striking and brutal images, the repulsive – yet alluring – aspect of beauty and love. Today, I came across this passage by Auden:

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” – “Robert Frost”, from The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. (Emphasis Supplied)

The first half of that passage would, I suppose, be the philosophy of a Keats writing La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a Tennyson writing The Lady of Shalott, or a Walter de La Mere writing A Song of Enchantment – romanticism, essentially. The second half seems to resemble the approach of the Movement, perhaps D.J. Enwright’s Saying No, or Larkin’s Deceptions. And as I think about Auden’s passage, it seems to me that these two approaches have often been in tension, evolving as a response, and in opposition to, each other. The 19th century Romantics were reacting to the Enlightenment, to mechanisation, to industrialisation, and so they were consciously trying to create, in the words of the critic F.R. Leavis, “a dream world“; and it was against this dream world that first, the Modernists, and then the Movement, in turn, reacted (think of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and Kingsley Amis’ Lovely, to take just two examples). 

And as I continued to muse over the passage, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the major reasons why Baudelaire’s poetry is so striking and impactful, and why it lingers so long in the memory, is that he does succeed in carrying out the Auden edict, to a great degree. I’ve underlined a few of the words in that passage, because I think they are most accurate. La Mort des Amants (The Death of Lovers) and La Chevelure (Of Her Hair) are two brilliant examples of how Baudelaire can build a “verbal earthly paradise“, that timeless world of pure play that contrasts with “actual historical existence… of inescapable suffering“. And for ugliness at its starkest, we of course need look no further than Une Charogne (The Carcass), and so many more.  The presence of these two types of poems in the same volume already hints at the point that Auden is making, but what is more, Baudelaire repeatedly succeeds in marrying them within the same poem. A few poems that I discussed earlier: Le Cygne (The Swan), where Baudelaire appropriates the classically romantic image of the swan to illustrate the desperate situation of the victims of colonialism (discussed here), and his series of poems on love and the ideal, in which allure and repulsion, attraction and disgust, beauty and ugliness – are all held together, mutually reinforcing each other, integral parts of both the poem and the experience (discussed here).

It is part of the point that, I think, Walter Benjamin makes in the very title of his book – “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism“, and in the book itself, when he calls Baudelaire the last of the lyric poets, and explains how he used the lyric form, and lyric motifs, in writing about the effects of the rise of the cities as part of the rise of 19th century industrial capitalism. This perhaps explains it – Baudelaire remoulded the language, imagery and vocabulary of romanticism – without depriving it of its essence – in a way that it becameincredibly – the language of the city, of everyday life, of what Auden calls “the truth“. Lyricism, but with no dream words, and “free from self-enchantment and deception” (remember, for a moment, how obsessed Larkin was with the word “deception”, and of freeing poetry from it – see this poem, called Deceptions. Larkin’s solution was a different language altogether, while Baudelaire kept the language, because he saw himself as a lyric poet).

Le Soleil (The Sun) is, I think, one of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems, and it illustrates the point perfectly (Aggeler translation):

The Sun

Along the old street on whose cottages are hung 
The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries, 
When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 
The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 
I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 
Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,
Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;
He makes cares evaporate toward heaven,
And fills with honey hives and brains alike.
He rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls,
And commands crops to flourish and ripen
In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!

When, like a poet, he goes down into cities, 
He ennobles the fate of the lowliest things 
And enters like a king, without servants or noise, 
All the hospitals and all the castles.

I think the great thing about this poem is how the two sets of images – and words – are intertwined so closely, so subtly, even, that it’s impossible to keep them apart in your head. “Secret lecheries” and “verses blooming in the fields like roses“; the “cruel” sun that “strikes with increased blows” – and yet “rejuvenates” those on crutches, filling them with the “sweetness and gaiety of girls” – and at the end, in the last line, “hospitals” and “castles” as the two places into which the sun goes. Baudelaire uses classic romantic vocabulary, referring to “immortal hearts” and “dreams“, and at the same time, destabilises it by also using “chlorosis” and “slated shutters“.  At the end of reading this poem, my mind, at least, was filled with a clutch of contradictory and confusing images, sensations, thoughts and ideas. The verbal earthly paradise, in the process of construction, had been subverted by the intrusion of the problematic, the painful, the disorderly and the ugly. And the key point, I think, the point that Auden does not make in the passage, but one that appears repeatedly in his own poetry – is the essentiality of not taking sides, of not driving the poem to a resolution where either one view prevails over another, or both are reconciled. This absence of reconciliation is, I feel, a key feature of Baudelaire’s poetry, something that distinguishes his treatment of contradictions from the romantics’ “sublimation of sorrow” that I discussed here. The contradictions remain unresolved, remain in tension, and yet remain integral and indispensable parts of the entire experience. And at the end of the day, we get a sense, from Baudelaire, that dissonance, disharmony, disarray… even these things can be beautiful.

This is perhaps what Auden’s vision of poetry – as it comes out through that passage – was, and perhaps what Baudelaire accomplished brilliantly.


Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, W.H. Auden