Saturday, November 13, 2010

On contemporary tribal relics: the map is not the territory

In a lengthy Facebook comment stream relating to my earlier blog post here, Sandra Simonds asked me to clarify my razzle-dazzle ending about interiority. Well, she got me! I hadn't yet seen Zadie Smith's ballyhoo'd piece about Facebook in the NYRB, in which she says something close to what was in my smaller craw:

Right now I am teaching my students a book called The Bathroom by the Belgian experimentalist Jean-Philippe Toussaint—at least I used to think he was an experimentalist. It’s a book about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom, yet to my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence.

In the most famous scene, the unnamed protagonist, in one of the few moments of “action,” throws a dart into his girlfriend’s forehead. Later, in the hospital they reunite with a kiss and no explanation. “It’s just between them,” said one student, and looked happy. To a reader of my generation, Toussaint’s characters seemed, at first glance, to have no interiority—in fact theirs is not an absence but a refusal, and an ethical one. What’s inside of me is none of your business. To my students, The Bathroom is a true romance.

... So I rather (inaptly) quoted Ramin Jahanbegloo on how "reading philosophy [though I was thinking poetry] can help us see the ontological difference between being critical of modernity, and remaining true to philosophy’s radical self-choice, which requires the ongoing Socratic task of bringing inwardness and dialogue into political life."

But Gene Tanta replied: "If ontologies existed, I'd wonder what the haters of modernity would have to squabble over with those who live reflective lives. Alas, since being is never 'there' fixed and forever, the difference is false or utopian (which, of course, makes the difference between a conservative person and a self-regarding person very important)."

I said: "You're not dispensing with Socrates, I take it."

No, he assured me, "I'm holding him close to my bosom, just look at my beard. You're not dispensing with modernity, are you?"

I suppose postmodernity has done that, or tried to - but me dispense with modernity? No way: I'm a-swim in modernism every day. Poetry arose in its wake, needless to say, the litmag being an invention of modernism; and here we are, many of us, still talking about Pound and H.D. & company after almost 100 years; or at least "writing through" them. Why?

And I wonder: how do we map such strange, shifting, and shiftless territory?


Here's Donald Fagen, if I may swerve again, from his blog (he's a terrific blogger!):

In September of '66, my formerly tweedy, graying poetry professor, Anthony Hecht, showed up for the new term in black and white-striped Uncle Sam bellbottoms, a bright paisley shirt, a suede vest and Beatle boots. We all assumed that these, along with a new laid-back, goofy expression, were the souvenirs of a summer spent among the flower children of Haight-Ashbury, a section of San Francisco that was just starting its climb to glory. Of course, my pals and I had to check it out as well. So, a few months later, I drove out there with a couple of friends.

The scene, made eerily vivid by the combination of psychedelic drugs and its own outrageous novelty, was pure sci fi: all these dazzling young girls dressed up in home-made outfits inspired by Pocahontas, Maid Marion, Annie Oakley and whoever. Tall, bony drug dealers with ponytails would walk past you muttering the names of their wares without the vowels, just in case you were a narc: Hsh! - Grss! - Zd! - Spd!. Blue Cheer, a group that touted itself as the loudest band in the world, was playing down the street at the Straight Theater.

It was fascinating, for about a week, anyway. Then you started to notice that a lot of the kids looked all waxy and wild-eyed, and that they were talking much too slow or much too fast and then you got that Oh Shit feeling like Lou Costello thinking he's talking to Abbott and then realizing he's talking to the Wolfman. On the corner, you'd spot the hustling predator (whose consciousness hadn't been raised as yet) looking to score off the middle-class kids who'd walked right onto their turf. It was over, bro, before it even hit Life Magazine.

By 1968, the paranoia was thick. The Vietnam War was escalating, Kennedy II and King were assassinated and both the right and the left were caught in a cycle of fear and fury. Several gruesome murders (the "Groovy" murders, Manson) broke the spirit of the alternative community. Almost immediately, the counterculture, this alliance of aspiring mutants, seemed to have a nervous breakdown and fragment into claques devoted to one authority figure or another: You could sign up with the Maharishi, Meher Baba, Rajneesh and his Orange People, Sun Myung Moon, the Sufis, the Jesus Freaks, the Hari Krishnas and various sects of Buddhists. Alternately, there were the human potential movements already mentioned, plus EST, Arica, Primal Therapy and scores of others. In the political sphere, you had the Panthers and the Weathermen. All this provided me and my droll companions with a lot of great material for after-dinner analysis, with or without herbal mood augmentation. Not that we all weren't feeling a little shaky ourselves. Now everyone had a map, but, as the Count liked to say, the map is not the territory. After a while, there wasn't any territory, either.

[I was lucky to meet Donald Fagen at my friend Don Guttenplan's wedding - as pictured above - and happily learned that he was a reader of literary magazines, including the one at which I then worked. I was also lucky some years later to have met Anthony Hecht, about whom I'd written; click here to listen to a reading Hecht gave at Harvard - just five years after the period Fagen describes.]

Is it all just a rush and whoosh? No map, no territory?


Here's Eliot Weinberger, in the New York Review of Books:

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a committed modernist had two ambitions: to make something new and to recover something old. In the search for new forms for the new age, it seemed as though everything was inspirational, and that the entirety of human history was rushing into the present: the folk songs and folk tales of European peasants, African and Inuit masks, Japanese haiku, Celtic rituals, Navajo blankets, Etruscan funerary sculpture, the unreconstructed fragments of classical Greek poetry, Oceanic shields and tapa cloths, alchemical drawings… The way into the future and out of the recent past—the perceived straitjacket of nineteenth-century art and mores—was to go back to the distant past.

A footnote reads: "In the prevailing evolutionary narrative of culture, contemporary tribal artifacts were seen as relics from the past, the 'childhood of man.'"

It is a whoosh, isn't it? So does modernism have a future? Possibly. This is Marjorie Perloff, writing on transition editor, Eugene Jolas:

From the first, Jolas's gift was an enormous sensitivity to different linguistic registers. Drafted in the U.S. army in 1917, he concentrated neither on military strategy nor on political issues but on the 'new words' that he heard from his fellow soldiers, most of them, like himself, recent immigrants: "profane words, crude words, voluptuous words, occult words, concrete words . . . a scintillating assemblage of phonetic novelties." "I heard," he recalls, "the vocabulary of the bunkhouse, the steamer, the construction camp, the brothel, the machine shop, the steel mill. I heard that lexicon of the farmhouse and the mountain cabin. . . . Here was truly a melting-pot, Franco-Belgian-Serbian-German-Austrian-Bohemian-Americans in our outfit mingled with native-born Americans with Anglo-Saxon names, and our conversations were often filled with picturesquely distorted English and foreign words that quickened my Babel fantasies."


"We tried," Jolas remarks sadly in the Epilogue to Man from Babel, "to give voice to the sufferings of man by applying a liturgical exorcism in a mad verbalism." But "now that the greatest war in history is over, and the nations are trying to construct a troubled peace in an atomic era, we realize that the international migrations which the apocalyptic decade has unleashed bring in their wake a metamorphosis of communication." The solution, he was quick to add, "will not be invented by philologists - we have seen their inventions: Idiom Neutral, Ido, Esperanto, Novial, Interglossa. These were pedantic, unimaginative creations without any life in them." Rather, one must take one's own language-and English, Jolas felt, was now the most prominent, used as it was by seven hundred million people around the world - and "bring into this medium elements from all the other languages spoken today." The new language "should not number several hundred thousand words, but millions of words. It will not be an artificial language, but one that has its roots in organic life itself."

The notion of interjecting "all the other languages spoken today" into the fabric of English is still a bit Utopian, but Jolas is on to something important -namely that multilingualism functions, not by mere addition, but by the infusion into one's own language of the cultures that are changing its base.

And Perloff goes on to outline how multilingualism is functioning in contemporary poetry. Still...


Addition and infusion. The past. Utopianism. And Babel fantasies. Such are the foibles of modernism that "unoriginal genius" - poetry by other means - may be supplanting. Or maybe it was all over before it hit Life magazine.

More power to 'em, as we used to say in the last century.


On the other hand, recent reports indicate that there's presently a turning back of the clock, so maybe it's the season to fall behind!

Pictured: 3 Dons


Henry Gould said...

My own little war with "postmodernity" is... personal.

Michael Schiavo said...

Do you think that Modernism's multiculturalism, looking to other cultures and ages for "the new," might also speak to Emerson's "one mind common to all." Not directly -- I don't know how well Pound and Emerson got along, considering Ezra's relationship with Whitman -- but simply as a result of, well, there being one mind common to all individuals and Emerson/Modernists coming at it from different angles?

Don Share said...

I don't have a war w/post-m., m., or any other watering hole for pigeons, just to be clear.

Michael, I've been thinking of writing up something on Ez and Ralph Waldo! Pound's concept of Usary - and a great many of his economic idears, generally - come almost verbatim out of Emerson's writing about Use (though their ideas are not identical). Modernism sprang roots and all right out of the 19th century thinking in a whole host of ways, EP's versions in particular. I'm no scholar, but even a general reader like me can see that among the hallmarks of modernism are/were: bookishness, reuse of the past, syncretism, and a flexible idealism grimly tempered by technology and war.

On the face of it, in any case, there was no "one mind" among the modernists, so many of whom were fractious and quarrelsome - but EP preached his ABCs (of reading, of economics) as if we'd all be prone to agree. In the end, his mind and imagination proved to be all-too-singular - one mind, alrighty - and so, unlike Emerson's thinking, which was for so long more contageous, EP paved the way for modern and postmodern ideolects. As Bunting famously wrote on the fly leaf of The Cantos, "There are the Alps. What is there to say about them? / They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb..." We will, as BB prophesied, have to "go a long way round" if we want to avoid them; these are the Alps! "Sit down and wait for them to crumble!"

Your mileage may vary.

Henry Gould said...

Stevens is the great example of avoiding those Alps, I'd say. He runs counter to the often-grandiose aestheticizations of Modernism & Postmodernism; the sense that art is primarily a TECHNIQUE, a modus operandus for getting around the practical & ethical facts of life. Contrary to Stevens stereotype, he was anything but an aesthete. He was in line with Santayana, in believing that art ought to be necessary, useful & moral, not a mere end in itself. But its "morality" & "usefulness" reside precisely in its detachment from socio-political bandwagons : its inner, moral freedom. In this he differs somewhat from Pound & everything that came after.

Liz said...

Don--you are doing your best Fred Sasaki impersonation in that photo!

Don Share said...

It's the other way around, Liz! FS wasn't even in knee pants when that photo was taken!

Michael Schiavo said...

I wanted to point out that in the new Richard Sieburth-edited New Selected Poems & Translations, there's a note to the "Usura Canto" (XLV):

First published as "Canto -- 'with Usura'" in the English monetary reform journal Prosperity (London), February 1936. In a 1938 review in Poetry, Delmore Schwartz observed: "It is interesting to observe in passing that in this particular Canto the attack on usury as a poetic statement can be separated from its connection with a particular economic theory by the mere device of substituting another three-syllable word with the same accents, for example, 'capital.'" In a note dated July 4, 1972, to his publisher on the occasion of the gathering of his Selected Prose by William Cookson, Pound wrote: "re USURY: I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause./The cause is AVARICE."

Don Share said...

Excellent catch there, Michael: thank you! Very gratifying stuff, there, too.