posted by Caroline Picard

This essay, originally written for the ARC Digest boook and then used for FLAT’s publication about apartment spaces was posted on the BadatSports blog. You can read the whole thing by going here, though I’ve included the first paragraph/quote, what was written by one Sarah Stickney who used to live in the space….The quote was taken from a small publication created/curated by Young Joon Kwok and Rachel Shine called “It’s Your Turn.” Their silkscreened, small edition 7″-size publication was also about DIY exhibition practices and how they are important.

On the matter of public (1) space : or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer

“‘Oh, you have a roommate?’

“ ‘Yeah, she’s actually here right now, but she’s sick….Don’t do that—she’s trying to sleep.’

“I heard them but pretended to remain asleep by keeping my eyes closed; [closing your eyes] is what passed for privacy then. My ‘room’ was in a corner of the kitchen on the other side of a folding screen. If you were tall enough, you could see me from either side at any time. The above exchange took place during the installation of a show when I happened to have a cold. I lived at the Green Lantern from 9/06 to 8/07. Recently out of college, I moved to Chicago to get my bearings. I had just spent two years living in the French countryside with no heat, no car, no Internet, no noise, no zines, no sushi, no shows, no jargon. When I moved in, I had never owned a computer. Suddenly I was in the middle of an art scene.

“Any Chicagoan who’s hip to the jive knows that an apartment gallery poses a unique set of problems. Someone actually lives there—sleeps and cooks and poos there—and yet the obligatory neutral space of the gallery must remain white-walled, spacious, antiseptic. At the GL in the earlier days, the gallery was clean, airy, spare, while on just the other side of a makeshift wall was a seething and barely-controlled chaos. A visiting friend once described the living space as ‘under a great deal of pressure,’ like the lack of density in the gallery half had to be balanced by ultra-density in the living half. This density consisted of, among other things, a large mounted buck complete with antlers, a five foot plaster statue of a fat man with an umbrella, a bong made out of steak shellacked to a milk carton, a taxidermied rooster, two large Chinese screens, many works of art in various stages of undress, two living cats…enough plates and stemware to host a diplomatic gala, a sink doubling as a bookshelf, a home-made up-ended ‘bar,’ an enormous vintage fridge, a miniature vintage stove, an easel, double-stacked books, innumerable trinkets ranging from delicate Eastern figurines to an ancient can of spam, an old-fashioned sandwich press, two Dictaphones, one enormous toaster (not in use) and a tiny one (in use). People liked throwing around comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, but that was legit. The fact that the two-foot high pepper mill was three times as tall as the delicate teapot, for instance, made me wonder if I’d accidentally swallowed a pill. And keep in mind that I’ve listed perhaps a sixteenth of the contents of those two or three improvised rooms. I haven’t even mentioned the huge quantities of building supplies, the aluminum ladder, the planks and tools and cans of paint…” (2)

Eurourbanism

June 6, 2009

posted by Rachel Shine

I came across this and didn’t want to go any further without sharing.  It’s Animal Collective playing a French city.  Paris, I think:

And the site that produced it: blogotheque.net

posted by Caroline Picard

I found myself procrastinating on the composition of this press release. And yet only yesterday did I recognize the procrastination as such.

Indeed, we’ve made a good long go of it–for four years the Green Lantern has been up and running. While I look forward to it’s 2010 incarnation, I nevertheless think it’s important a) to reflect on what it has done thus far, what it has been and b) mark this point in time. Because after all, apartment galleries open and close and there will be new ones to replace the old and Chicago has an incredible vitality, what I can’t help but attribute the community in which we are all seated. Everyone a torch bearer.

To that point, on Saturday, June 13th, the final day of Jenny Walter’s solo show “In Lieu of Gifts” the Green Lantern will open its doors at 3 pm. We will have two (very small) open grills in the back (bring food if you want to cook it), and a keg.

At 5pm Terri Griffith will read from her forthcoming novel “So Much Better” (Fall 2009, Green Lantern Press);

at 6:30 pm we will read some passages from “The North Georgia Gazette” (Sept. 2009, Green Lantern Press).

Thereafter there will be much milling around, laughing, tet-a-tets, perhaps a few misty eyes and wistful glances and certainly a robust exubernace.

– TOASTS –

will be encouraged over the course of the day

At 9pm the live music performances will start (not in this order). This portion of the evening is BYOB. Those that stay will be encouraged to donate $5.

Casual Encounters

Oniou

I Kong Cult

Young Joon Kwok and Rachel Shine will release thier limited edition zine, with silk screen covers, “It’s Your Turn,” in which various letters, essays and comments about Chicago’s DIY Art Community will be published. These will be available for a small dollar fee.

posted by Rachel Shine

this was originally published in Tin House

Getting Into the Soul of Things

Milan Kundera

“My objection to his book is that the good is too much absent,” said Sainte-Beuve in his review of Madame Bovary. Why, he asked, does this novel not have in it “a single person who might console and give ease to the reader by some picture of goodness?” Then he points the young author to the right path: “In a remote province in central France, I met a woman, still young, superior in intelligence, ardent of heart, restless: a wife but not a mother, with no child to raise, to love, what did she do to make use of her overflowing mind and soul?  . . .  She set about becoming a delightful benefactress . . . She taught reading and moral development to the children of the villages, often few and far between . . . There are such souls in provincial and rural life; why not show them as well?  That is uplifting, it is consoling, and the picture of humankind is only the more complete for it.”  (I have emphasized the key terms.)

It is tempting for me to jibe at this morality lesson, which irresistibly recalls the improving exhortations of the recent “social realism.”  But, memories aside, is it really so inappropriate for the most prestigious French critic of his time to exhort a young writer to “uplift” and “console” his readers by “a picture of goodness,” readers who deserve, as do we all, a little sympathy and encouragement?  In fact George Sand, in a letter some twenty years later, told Flaubert much the same thing:  Why does he hide the “feeling” he has for his characters?  Why not show his “personal doctrine” in his novel?  Why does he bring his readers “desolation,” whereas she, Sand, would rather “console” them?  As a friend she admonishes him: “Art is not only criticism and satire.”

Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire.  He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers.  He is after something entirely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things.”  His reply makes it very clear: the real subject of the disagreement is not Flaubert’s character (whether he is kind or cruel, cold or compassionate) but the question of what the novel is.

For centuries painting and music were in service to the church, a fact that in no way  lessened their beauty.  But putting a novel to the service of an authority, however notable, would be impossible for a true novelist.  It makes no sense to try to glorify a state, let alone an army, with a novel!  And yet Vladimír Holan, enthralled by the men  who liberated his country (and mine) in 1945, wrote The Soldiers of the Red Army, beautiful, unforgettable poems.  I could imagine a magnificent painting by Frans Hals that would show a “diligent benefactress” surrounded by peasant children whom she is training in “moral development,” but only a very foolish novelist  could make that good lady a heroine as an example to “uplift” his readers’ minds.  For we must never forget: the arts are not all alike; each of them accedes to the world by a different doorway.  Among those doorways one is exclusively reserved to the novel.

I say “exclusively” because to me the novel is not a “literary genre,” one branch among many of a single tree.  We will understand nothing about the novel if we deny that it has its own muse, if we do not see it as an art sui generis, an autonomous art.  It has its own genesis (which occurred at a moment specific to it); it has its own history, marked by phrases that pertain to it alone (the highly important shift from verse to prose in the evolution of dramatic literature has no equivalent in the evolution of the novel; the histories of the two arts are not synchronous); it has its own morality (Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral; thus “getting into the soul of things” and setting a good example are two different and irreconcilable purposes); it has it specific relation to the author’s “self” (in order to hear the secret, barely audible voice of “the soul of things,” the novelist, unlike the poet or the musician, must know how to silence the cries of his own soul); it has its time span for creation (the writing of a novel takes up a whole era in a writer’s life, and when the labor is done he is no longer the person he was at the start); it opens itself to the world beyond its national language (ever since Europe added rhyme to rhythm in its poetry, the full beauty of a verse can no longer be transplanted from one language into another; by contrast, faithful translation of a prose work, while difficult, is possible; in the world of novels there are no state borders; the great novelists who claimed descent from Rebelais had nearly all read him in translation.)

Ineradicable Error

Just after World War II, a group of brilliant French intellectuals made famous the word existentialism, so baptizing a new orientation in not only philosophy but also theater and the novel.  As theoretician of his own theater pieces, Sartre, with his great flair for phrasemaking, proclaimed the “theater of situations” as opposed to the “theater of characters.”  Our goal, he explained in 1946, is “to explore all the situations most common to human experience,” the situations that illuminate the major aspects of the human condition.

Who has not sometimes wondered: suppose I had been born somewhere else, in another country, in another time, what would my life have been?  The question contains within it one of mankind’s most widespread illusions, the illusion that brings us to consider our life situation a mere stage set, a contingent, interchangeable circumstance through which moves our autonomous, continuing “self.”  Ah, how fine it is to imagine our other lives, a dozen possible other lives!  But enough daydreaming!  We are all hopelessly riveted to the date and place of our birth.  Our “self” is inconceivable outside the particular, unique situation of our life; it is only comprehensible in and through that situation.  If two strangers had not come looking for Josef K. one morning to inform him that he was under indictment, he would be someone totally different from the person we know.

Sartre’s powerful personality, his double status as both philosopher and writer, lends support to the idea that the existential orientation of the twentieth-century theater and novel must come from the influence of a philosophy.  This is still the old ineradicable error, the belief that the relation between philosophy and literature goes only one way, that insofar as “professionals of narration” are obliged to have ideas, they can only borrow them from “professionals of thought.”  Well, the shift that gradually turned the art of the novel away from its fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition) occurred twenty years before the existentialism vogue gripped Europe; and it was inspired not by the philosophers but by the logic of evolution in the art of the novel itself.

Situations

Franz Kafka’s three novels are three variants of the same situation: man in conflict not with another man but with a world transformed into an enormous administration.  In the first book (written in 1912) the man is called Karl Rossman and the world is America.  In the second (1917) the man is called Josef K. and the world is a huge tribunal indicting him.  In the third (1922) the man is called K. and the world is a village dominated by a castle.

Kafka may turn away from psychology to concentrate on exploring a situation, but that does not mean that his characters are not psychologically convincing, only that the psychological problematic has moved to the secondary level: Whether K.’s childhood was happy or sad, whether he was his mama’s pet or was raised in an orphanage, whether or not he has some great romance behind him, will have no effect on his destiny or his behavior.  It is by this reversal of the problematic, this other means of conceiving a person’s identity, that Kafka sets himself off not only from past literature but also fro his great contemporaries Proust and Joyce.

“The gnosiologic novel instead of the psychological novel,” wrote Broch in a letter explicating the poetics of The Sleepwalkers (written between 1929 and 1932); each book of this trilogy: 1888—Pasenow or Romanticism, 1903—Esch or Anarchy, and 1918—Huguenau or Realism (the dates are part of the titles), is set fifteen years after the preceding one, in a different milieu, with a different protagonist.  What makes a single work of the tree novels (they are never published separately) is a common situation, the supra-individual situation of the historical process that Broch calls the “degradation of values,” in the face of which each protagonist works out his own attitude: first Pasenow, faithful t the values which are on the point of disappearing before his very eyes: the Esch, obsessed by the need for values but no longer sure how to recognize them; finally Huguenau, who adapts perfectly into a world deserted by values.

I feel somewhat embarrassed mentioning Jaroslav Hašek among these writers whom, in my “professional history of the novel,” I see as the founders of the novel’s modernism, because Hašek never gave a hoot what whether he was modern or not; he was a popular writer in the old sense—a writer-hobo, a writer-adventurer, who scorned the literary world and was scorned by it, author of a single novel which instantly found a very large audience throughout the world.  That said, it seems all the more remarkable that his Good Soldier Švejk (written between 1920 and 1923) should reflect the same aesthetic leanings as Kafka’s novels (the two writers did live in the same city over the same years) or as Broch’s.

“To Belgrade!” cries Švejk; summoned to the draft board, he has himself pushed in a wheelchair through the Prague streets lifting high a pair of borrowed crutches in a martial flourish, to the amusement of the Prague bystanders.  It is the day the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, unleashing the Great War of 1914 (the one that comes to represent the crumbling of all values, and the final segment of his trilogy.)  In order to live danger-free in this world, Švejk so wildly exaggerates his support for the army, the father land, the emperor, that no one can tell for sure whether he is a cretin or a clown.  Nor does Hašek tell us; we will never know what Švejk is thinking as he spouts his conformist idiocies, and it is precisely because we do not know that he fascinates us.  On Prague beer-hall posters he is always shown as short and round, but it was the book’s famous illustrator who imagined him that way; Hašek never said a word about Švejk’s physical appearance.  We don’t know what sort of family he came from.  We never see him with a woman.  Does he do without?  Does he keep them secret?  No answers.  But what’s more interesting is: no questions!  What I mean is, we don’t care in the slightest whether Švejk likes women or doesn’t!

Here we are seeing a quiet but radical shift in aesthetics: the idea that for a character to be “lifelike,” “strong,” artistically “successful,” a writer need not supply all the possible data on him; there is no need to make us believe he is as real as you and I; for him to be strong and unforgettable, it is enough that he fills the whole space of the situation the novelist has created for him.  (In this new aesthetic climate the novelist occasionally even decides to remind the reader that nothing he is telling is real, that everything is his invention—like Fellini, at the end of his film And the Ship Sails On, where he shows us all the backstage areas and the mechanics of his theater of illusion.)

What Only the Novel Can Say

The action of The Man Without Qualities takes place in Vienna, but as I recall, that name comes up only two or three times in the course of the novel.  Like the word London in Fielding, the Vienna topography is not mentioned and is even less described.  And what is the unnamed city where the very important encounter occurs between Ulrich and his sister, Agathe?  You couldn’t know this: the city is called Brno in Czech, Brünn in German; I recognized it readily from a few details, because I was born there; no sooner do I say that than I scold myself for going against Musil’s intention . . . intention?  What  intention?  Did he have something to hide?  Not at all; his intention was purely aesthetic: to concentrate only on the essential, not to draw the reader’s attention off to unimportant geographical considerations.

The sense of modernism is often seen in the determination of each of the arts to come as close as possible to its own particular nature, its essence.  For instance, lyric poetry rejected anything rhetorical, didactic, embellishing, so as to set flowing the pure fount of poetic fantasy.  Painting renounced its documentary, mimetic function, whatever might be expressed by some other medium (for instance, photography).  And the novel?  It too refuses to exist as illustration of a historical era, as description of society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of “what only the novel can say.”

I recall the short story “Sheep,” by Kenzaburo Oe (written in 1958): Onto an evening bus full of Japanese riders climbs a band of drunken soldiers from a foreign army; they set about terrorizing a passenger; a student.  They force him to take off his pants and show his bare bottom.  The student hears muffled laughter all around him.  But the soldiers are not satisfied with this lone victim; they force half the other passengers to drop their trousers as well.  The bus stops, the soldiers get off, and the trouserless people pull their clothes back on.  The other passengers wake out of their passive state and insist the humiliated fellows must go to the police and report the foreign soldiers’ behavior.  One rider, a schoolteacher, sets about hounding the student; he follows him off the bus, walks him to his house, demands his name to publicize his humiliation and condemn the foreigners.  The whole thing ends in a burst of hatred between the two.  A magnificent story of cowardice, shame and sadistic indecency passing itself off as love for justice . . . But I mention the story only to ask:  Who are those foreign soldiers?  They must be Americans, who were occupying Japan after the war.  The author does explicitly call the other passengers “Japanese,” so why does he not specify the nationality of the soldiers?  A matter of style?  No.  Suppose that, throughout the story, the Japanese passengers were facing American soldiers!  The power effect of using that single word, explicitly pronounced, would reduce the story to a political tract—to an accusation against the occupying forces.  Just forgoing that one adjective was enough for the political aspect to recede into dim shadow, and for the light to focus on the enigma that most interested the writer, the existential enigma.

Because history, with its agitations, its wars, its revolutions and counterrevolutions, its national humiliations, does not interest the novelist for itself—as a subject to paint, to denounce, to interpret.  The novelist is not a valet to historians; history may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when history stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

Thinking Novels

The novelist’s mandate to “concentrate on the essential” (on what “only the novel can say”)—doesn’t it support critics who object to an author’s reflections as an element alien to the novel form?  Indeed, if a novelist utilizes means that are not proper to him, that belong more to the scholar or the philosopher, is that not the sign of his inability to be fully a novelist and nothing but, the sign of his artistic weakness?  And moreover: Don’t meditative interpolations risk transforming the characters’ actions into mere illustration of the author’s theses?  And again: Doesn’t the art of the novel, with its feel for relativity of human truths, require that the author’s opinion stay out of sight, and that all thinking be left to the reader alone?

The answer from Broch and Musil was utterly clear: they flung the doors wide and brought thinking into the novel as no one had ever done before.  The essay called “The Degradation of Values” interpolated into The Sleepwalkers (it takes up ten chapters scattered thought the third novel of the trilogy) is a series of analyses, of meditations, of aphorisms on the spiritual condition of Europe over the course of three decades; impossible to call that essay inappropriate to the novel form, for it is what lights the wall against which the fates of the three protagonists crash, what binds the three novels into one.  I can never emphasize it enough: integrating such intellectually rigorous thinking into a novel and making it, so beautifully and musically, an inseparable part of the composition is one of the boldest innovations any novelist has dared in the era of modern art.

But there is something more important, in my view: For these two Viennese, thinking is no longer felt to be an unusual element, an interruption; it is hard to call it “digression” for in these thinking novels it is constantly present, even when the novelist is recounting an action or describing a face.  Tolstoy or Joyce had us hear the phrases going through the heads of Anna Karenina or Molly Bloom; Musil tells us what he himself is thinking as he levels his long gaze on Leo Fischel and his nightmare performances:

    A conjugal bedroom, with the lights out, puts a man into the position of an actor who must play before an invisible perterre the flattering, but by now rather stale, role of hero behaving like a roaring lion.  For years now, Leo’s dark audience has not given off the faintest applause at the presentation, nor the slightest sign of disapproval, and surely that’s enough to rattle the healthiest nerves.  In the morning, at breakfast, Klementine was stiff as a frozen corpse and Leo strained to the point of trembling.  Their daughter Gerda would see it herself regularly, and from that time on she thought of conjugal life, with horror and bitter disgust, as a catfight in the dark of night.

Thus did Musil go into “the soul of things,” that is, into the Fischel couple’s “soul of coitus.”  Through the flash of a single metaphor, a thinking metaphor, he casts light on their sex life, present and past, and even into their daughter’s future.

To emphasize:  Novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say, fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters’ lives; those lives feed it and justify it.

Ulrich is in Count Leinsdorf’s ministerial office on the day of a major demonstration.  A demonstration?  Against what?  The information is provided but it is secondary; what matters is the phenomenon of the demonstration in itself:  What does it mean to demonstrate in the streets, what is the significance of that collective activity so symptomatic of the twentieth century?  In stupefaction Ulrich watches the demonstrators from the window; as they reach the foot of the palace, their faces turn up, turn furious, the men brandish their walking sticks, but “a few steps farther, at a bend where the demonstration seemed to scatter into the wings, most of them were already dropping their greasepaint: it would be absurd to keep up the menacing looks where there were no more spectators.”  In the light of that metaphor, the demonstrators are not men in a rage; they are actors performing rage!  As soon as the performance is over they are quick to drop their greasepaint!  Later, in the 1960s, philosophers would talk about the modern world in which everything had turned into spectacle: demonstrations, wars, and even love; through this “quick and sagacious penetration” (Fielding), Musil had already long ago discerned the “society of spectacle.”

The Man Without Qualities is a matchless existential encyclopedia about its century; when I feel like rereading this book, I usually open it at random, at any page, without worrying what comes before an what follows; even if there is “story” there, it proceeds slowly, quietly, without seeking to attract attention; each chapter in itself is a surprise, a discovery.  The omnipresence of thinking in no way deprives the novel of its nature as a novel; it has enriched its form and immensely broadened the realm of what only the novel can discover and say.

The Frontier of the Implausible Is No Longer Under Guard

Two great stars brightened the sky over the twentieth-century novel: that of surrealism, with its enchanting call for the fusion of dream and reality, and that of existentialism.  Kafka died too soon to know their writers and their aesthetic programs.  Still, and remarkably, the novels he wrote anticipated the two aesthetic tendencies and—what’s more remarkable still—bound the two together, placed them in a single perspective.

When Balzac or Flaubert or Proust wants to describe someone’s behavior within a specific social milieu, any violation of plausibility is out of place, aesthetically inconsistent, but when the novelist focuses his lens on a problematic that is existential, the obligation to give the reader a plausible world no longer comes into play as rule or necessity.  The author can be far more casual about that apparatus of data, descriptions, and motivations meant to give his story the appearance of reality.  And, in some borderline cases, he can even find it worthwhile to put his characters in a world that is frankly impossible.

After Kafka crossed it, the frontier to the implausible was left with no police, no custom guards, open for good.  That was a great moment in the history of the novel, and lest its meaning be mistaken, I caution that it was not the nineteenth-century German Romantics who were its precursors.  Their fanciful imagining had a different meaning:  Turning away from the real world, it was seeking after a different life; it had little to do with the art of the novel.  Kafka was no romantic.  Novalis, Tieck, Arnim, E. T. A. Hoffmann were not who he loved.  It was André Breton who worshipped Arnim, not he.  As a young man, Kafka and his friend Max Brod read Flaubert, passionately, in the French.  He studied him.  It was Flaubert, the master observer, he took for his teacher.

The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it; under Kafka’s long gaze it is gradually revealed as empty of reason, thus non-reasonable, thus implausible. It is that long avid gaze set on the real world that led Kafka, and other great novelist after him, past the frontier of the plausible.

Einstein and Karl Rossman

Jokes, anecdotes, funny stories—I don’t know what term to choose for the sort of very short comical tale I heard so much of in the old days, for Prague was its world capital.  Political jokes.  Jewish jokes.  Jokes about peasants.  And about doctors.  And an odd kind of joke about absentminded professors who for some unknown reason always carried umbrellas.

Einstein finishes a lecture at the university in Prague (yes, he did teach there for a while) and is getting ready to leave the hall.  “Herr Professor, sir, take your umbrella, it’s raining out!”  Einstein gazes thoughtfully at his umbrella where it stands in a corner of the room, and answers the student:  “You know, my good friend, I often forget my umbrella, so I have two of them.  One is at the house, the other I keep at university.  Of course I could take it now since, as you say quite correctly, it is raining.  But then I would end up with two umbrellas at the house and none here.”  And with these words he goes out into the rain.

Kafka’s America begins with that same motif, an umbrella that is cumbersome, a pest, forever getting misplaced: Karl Rossman is lugging a heavy trunk through the crowd disembarking from an ocean liner at the port of New York.  Suddenly he remember he’s left his umbrella back on the lower deck.  He entrusts his trunk to the young fellow he met on the voyage, and as the passage behind him is jammed, he runs down an unfamiliar staircase and loses his way in the corridors below; finally he knocks at the door of a cabin where he finds a man, a coal stoker, who immediately starts complaining to him about his supervisors; the conversation goes on for some time so the fellow invites Karl to make himself more comfortable, to have a seat on the bunk.

The psychological impossibility of the situation is dazzling.  Really, what we’re being told—it can’t be true! It is a joke, and of course at the end Karl winds up with no trunk and no umbrella!  Yes, it’s a joke, except that Kafka doesn’t tell it the way one tells jokes; he lays it out at length, in careful detail, describing every move such that it appears psychologically credible;  Karl climbs awkwardly onto the bunk, laughing embarrassedly at his clumsiness; after listening to the stoker’s long account of humiliations, he suddenly realizes with startled clarity that he ought to have “gone and got back his trunk instead of staying here and giving advice.”  Kafka pulls the mask of the plausible over the implausible.

In Praise of Jokes

Jokes, anecdotes, funny stories: they are the best evidence that a sharp sense of the real and an imagination that ventures into the implausible can make a perfect pairing.  Rabelais’ Panurge does not know any woman he would care to wed, yet being of a logical, theoretical, systematic, foresighted turn of mind, he decides to settle immediately, once and for all, the fundamental question of his life: should a man marry or not?  He hurries from one expert to another, from a philosopher to a lawyer, from a clairvoyant to an astrologer, from a poet to a theologian, and after very lengthy investigations he arrives at the certainty that there is no answer to this greatest of all questions.  The whole Third Book recounts nothing but this implausible activity, this joke, which turns into a long farcical tour of all the knowledge of Rabelais’ time.  (Which reminds me that, three hundred years later, Bouvard and Pécuchet is also an extended joke that surveys the knowledge of a whole period.)

Cervantes wrote the second part of Don Quixote when the first half had already been published and known for several years.  That suggested a splendid idea to him:  The characters Don Quixote meets along his way recognize him as the living hero of the book they have read; they discuss his past adventures with him and give him the opportunity to comment on his own literary image.  Well, that’s just not possible!  It’s straight fantasy!  A joke!

Then an unexpected event shakes Cervantes: another writer, a stranger, anticipates him by publishing his own sequel to the adventures of Don Quixote.  In his second part, which he is in the process of writing, the enraged Cervantes attacks the man with ferocious insults.  But he also makes prompt use of this ugly incident to create a further fantasy:  After all their misadventures, Don Quixote and Sancho, exhausted and gloomy, are already on the way back to their village when they meet a certain Don Alvaro, a character from the accursed plagiarism;  Alvaro is astounded to hear their names, for he is a close friend of an entirely different Don Quixote and an entirely different Sancho!  The meeting takes place just a few pages before the end of the novel: the characters’ unsettling encounter with their own specters; the ultimate proof of the falseness of all things; the melancholy moon glow of the final joke, the farewell joke.

In Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, Professor Pimko decides to turn Joey, a thirty-year-old man, into a boy of seventeen, and force him to spend his days on a high school bench, a student like all the rest.  The burlesque situation conceals a question that is actually quite profound:  Will an adult systematically treated as an adolescent eventually lose the sense of his true age?  More generally:  Will the man become what others se and treat him as, or will he muster the strength, despite everything and everyone, to salvage his identity?

Basing a novel on an anecdote, on a joke, must have seemed to Gombrowicz’s readers a modernist’s provocation.  And they would be right: it was that.  However, it had very old roots.  At the time when the art of the novel was not yet sure of its identity or its name, Fielding called it “prosai-comi-epic writing”; it should be kept always in mind: the comic was one of the three mythical fairies leaning over the cradle of the newborn novel.

The History of the Novel as Seen from Gombrowicz’s Studio

A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium.  Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls.  He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work.  According to his criteria of values, he will again trace out for you the whole past of the novel’s history, and in so doing will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel, one that belongs to him alone and that is therefore, quite naturally, different from that of other writers.  So you will fell you are moving in amazement down into history’s hold, where the novel’s future is being decided, is coming into being, taking shape, amid quarrels and conflicts and confrontations.

In 1953, in the first year of his Journal (he was to keep it over the next sixteen years until he died), Witold Gombrowicz quotes a letter from a reader: “Above all do not comment on your own work!  Just write!  What a pity that you let yourself be provoked into writing prefaces to your works, prefaces and even commentaries!”  To which Gombrowicz replies that he intends to go on explaining himself “as much as he can and for as long as he can,” because a writer who cannot talk about his books is not a “complete writer.”  Let us linger for a moment in Gombrowicz’s studio.  Here is a list of his likes and dislikes, his “personal version oh the history of the novel”:

Above all else he loves Rabelais. (The books of Garantua and Pantagruel are written at a moment when the European novel is just being born, well before any norms; they overflow with possibilities that the novel’s future will bring to pass or will abandon but that, all of them, still live on with us as inspirations: strolls through the implausible, intellectual teases, freedom of form.  His passion for Rabelais reveals the meaning of Gombrowicz’s modernism: he does not reject the tradition of the novel, he claims it but claims it as a whole, with particular attention to the miraculous moment of its beginnings.)

He is fairly indifferent to Balzac. (He resists Balzac’s poetics, erected over time into the normative model of the novel.)

He loves Baudelaire. (He supports the revolution of modern poetry.)

He is not fascinated by Proust. (A crossroads: Proust reached the end of a grandiose journey all of whose possibilities he exhausted; Gombrowicz, possessed by the quest for the new, can only take some other route.)

He feels affinities for almost no other contemporary novelist. (Novelists often have astonishing holes in their own reading:  Gombrowicz had read neither Broch nor Musil; irritated by the snobs who latched onto Kafka, he was not especially drawn to him; he felt no affinity for Latin American literature; he looked down on Borges as too pretentious for his taste; and he lived in Argentina in a state of isolation: of important writers only Ernesto Sábato paid him attention; Gombrowicz returned the kindly feeling.)

He dislikes nineteenth-century Polish literature. (Too romantic for him.)

In general he is reserved toward Polish literature. (He felt disliked by his compatriots; yet his reserve is not resentment; it expresses his revulsion at being caught in the straightjacket of the small context.  About the Polish poet Tuwim he says, “Of any one of his poems we can say it is ‘marvelous,’ but if we are asked what Tuwimian element has made world poetry richer, we would really not know what to reply.”)

He likes the avant-garde of the 1920s and ‘30s. (Though mistrustful of its “progressive” ideology, its “promodern modernism,” he does share its thirst for new forms, its freedom of imagination.  He counsels a young author: first, as in the “automatic writing” of the surrealists, write twenty pages with no rational control, then reread that with a sharp critical eye, keep what is essential and go on that way.  It is as if he hoped to hitch the novel’s cart to a wild horse called “Drunkenness,” alongside a trained horse called “Rationality.”)

He has contempt for “commitment literature.” (A remarkable thing: he does not inveigh much against writers who subordinate literature to the struggle against capitalism.  The paradigm of “commitment art” for him, this writer banned in his now-Communist Poland, is literature that marches under the banner of anti-Communism.  From the first year of his Journal, he reproaches its Manichaeanism, its simplifications.)

He dislikes the avant-garde of the 1950s and ‘60s in France, particularly the “new novel” and the “new criticism” (Roland Barthes). (On the topic of the new novel:  “It is paltry.  It is monotonous . . . Solipsism, onanism . . . ”  On the topic of new criticism:  “The smarter it is, the dumber it is.”  He was irritated by the dilemma these new avant-gardes were posing for writers: it was either modernism their way (which modernism he found jargon-laden, university-ridden, doctrinaire, out of touch with reality)  or else conventional art endlessly turning out the same forms.  For Gombrowicz modernism meant: through new discoveries, advancing along the inherited path.  As long as that is still possible.  As long as the inherited path still exists.)

A Different Continent

It was three months after the Russian army had occupied Czechoslovakia; Russia was not yet able to dominate Czech society, which was living with anxiety but (for another few months) with a good deal of freedom: the Writers Union, alleged to be the hotbed of the counterrevolution, still had its houses, published its journals, received guests.  At the Union’s invitation, three Latin American writers came to Prague:  Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes.  They came quietly, as writers.  To see.  To understand.  To give heart to their Czech colleagues.  I spent an unforgettable week with them.  We became friends.  And just after they left I had the opportunity to read the Czech translation proofs of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I thought about the anathema the surrealists had cast upon the art of the novel, which they stigmatized as antipoetic, closed to any free imagination. Well, García Márquez’s novel is free imagination itself.  One of the greatest works of poetry I know.  Every single sentence sparkles with fantasy, every sentence is surprise, is wonder:  the book is a stunning retort to the disdain for the novel as proclaimed in the Surrealist Manifesto (and at the same time a fine homage to surrealism—to its inspiration, to its breath, which blew through the century.)

It is also proof that poetry and lyricism are not two sister notions but notions that must actually be kept well apart.  For García Márquez’s  poetry has no relation to lyricism, the author is not confessing, not exposing his soul, he is not drunk on anything but the objective world he lifts into a sphere where everything is simultaneously real, implausible, and magical.

And there’s this as well: the whole great nineteenth-century novel made the scene the basic element of composition.  García Márquez’s novel travels a road heading in the opposite direction: in One Hundred Years of Solitude there are no scenes!  They are completely diluted in the drunken floods of narration.  I know no other example of such a style.  As if the novel were moving back centuries, toward a narrator who describes nothing, only recounts, but recounts with a freedom of fantasy never seen before.

The Silvery Bridge

A few years after that Prague encounter, I moved to France, where, as chance would have it, Carlos Fuentes was the ambassador from Mexico.  I was living in Rennes, and on brief visits to Paris I would stay at his place, in a garret of his embassy, and we would have breakfasts that stretched into endless discussions.  Suddenly I saw my Central Europe as an unexpected neighbor to Latin America: two edges of the West located at its opposite ends; two neglected, disdained, abandoned lands, pariah lands; and the two parts of the world most profoundly marked by the traumatizing experience of the baroque.  I say “traumatizing” for the baroque came to Latin America as the art of the conqueror, and it came into my naïve land carried by an especially bloody Counter-Reformation, which roused Max Brood to call Prague the “city of evil.”  I was seeing two parts of the world that were familiar with the mysterious marriage of evil and beauty.

We would talk, and a bridge—silvery, light, quivering, shimmering—formed like a rainbow over the century between my little Central Europe and the immense Latin America, a bridge that linked Matthias Braun’s ecstatic statues in Prague to the mad churches of Mexico.

And I thought too about another affinity between our two homelands:  they held key positions in the evolution of the twentieth-century novel: first the Central European novelists of the 1920s and ‘30s (Carlos called Broch’s Sleepwalkers the greatest novel of the century): then, some twenty or thirty years later, the Latin American novelists, my contemporaries.

One day I discovered the novels of Ernesto Sábato.  In The Exterminating Angel (1974), which overflows with thinking like the books of the two earlier Viennese, he says explicitly that in the modern world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered by hundreds of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.

A half century before him, on the other side of the planet (the silvery bridge was still vibrating above my head) the Broch of The Sleepwalkers, the Musil of The Man Without Qualities thought the same thought.  At the time the surrealists were elevating poetry to the topmost rank of the arts, those two were awarding that supreme place to the novel.

Going Out With A Bang.

April 23, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard : Another Run-Down of What’s Coming UP

*fyi: Our monthly reading series & podcast, The Parlor, will continue throughout the summer and fall and thereafter.

I present you with a circus, including 2 fairs, Carol Anshaw to read at The Parlor, the last opening at the current space, an opening at the Hyde Park Art Center (where upon you may see a preview copy of the North Georgia Gazette), a screening, a call for submissions, and the final closing party–that is, the “It’s Your Turn” Party, (whereupon submissions will be read and toasts will be made)

1) NFO XPO:

April 25 & 26 , 2009
1pm to 8pm

Benton House Gymnasium
3052 S Gratten Avenue
Bridgeport (off Bosley Park)
(a few doors north of the Benton House)

The NFO XPO (pronounced “info expo”) brings art groups and community orgs together to exchange information and ideas as well as provide a public platform for each group to present themselves. It’s a trade show for experimental art, emerging spaces, and radical exchange. It’s our version of what an art fair should be. It is a fantastic opportunity to view emerging art, to network and make shit happen.

( Link to Last years XPO : http://www.flickr.com/photos/versionfest/sets/72157605676428359/

Participants include:
Albert Stabler and Paul Nudd ($heart), Green Lantern, Institute of Socioæsthetic Research ( Daniel Mellis), Alan Moore, Spoke, Antenna, The Space LIC, Reuben Kincaid, Art Shanty Projects, Hui-min Tsen, Marc Arcuri and Ellicott, Joe Baldwin, Laura Miller, Casey Smallwood, Marc Moscato, Hale Ekinci, Michael Coolidge, Andi Sutton and Anne Elizabeth Moore, Amanda Lichtenstein, Evan Plummer and Maritza Mosquera (Letter Writing Revivalists), Grant Newman, Sarah Kenny, Ashly Metcalf, Ray Emerick Studios, Trendbeheer, ChicagoArts, Threewalls, Hungry Brain, Aaron Delehanty, Birdhouse Museum, Jeriah Robert Hildwine, Doug Smithenry, James Jankowiak, Nicholas Schutzenhofer, Stephanie Burke and others.

The Free University happens simultaneously to the NFO XPO downstairs in the classroom facility of the Gymnasium.

http://www.versionfest.org

2) “It’s Your Turn” zine to be released in conjunction with the closing of Green Lantern Gallery on June 16th.

Dear members of the art community of Chicago,

We’re making a zine entitled “It’s Your Turn” to commemorate the closing of the Green Lantern Gallery, and the launch of many other new and awesome spaces in Chicago.  We’d like to include some thoughts from people in the art communities in Chicago–memories of past experiences at the Green Lantern Gallery and other art spaces in Chicago, or responses to the prompts below:

Describe Chicago’s art community in six words or less…

What is the sound (or smell, or touch, etc.) of the Chicago art community? …

What is your ideal art space / exhibition venue?

Where is the art world?

How do you feel about approaching spaces to show your work, host your band’s show and whatnot?

How do Chicago’s art communities compare each other…and to those of other cities?

To be included in the zine, (and proposed as toasts on the day/evening of the party!) we need to recieve them by 5/10, seriously.  Responses should be sent to Ms. Rachel Shine– mintsuit@gmail.com

If you have any other ideas for inclusion in the zine, email Young Joon at youngjkwak@gmail.com

3) GOFFO
We’ll be sharing a booth with our buddies from Featherproof, hawking books and telling stories, so if you want to stop by, you can find us at  booth #
7-7136 on the 7th floor of the Merchandise Mart, May 1-4th. There is an opening “preview” reception on Thursday the 1st.

4) Carol Anshaw will read at The Parlor Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 at 7pm

Carol Anshaw is the author of the novels Aquamarine, Seven Moves, and Lucky in the Corner. Her books have won the Carl Sandburg Award, the Ferro-Grumley Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Award. Her stories have appeared in Story magazine, Tin House, The Best American Stories and, most recently, in Do Me: Tales of Sex and Love from Tin House. Anshaw is a past fellow of the NEA. For her book criticism she was awarded the NBCC Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She is a professor in the MFA in Writing program at the School of the Art Institute. She has just finished a new novel, Carry the One.

 

Following her 30 minute reading, Carol will take questions from the audience.

 

As always, the event will be recorded and published on-line for your repeated listening pleasure on iTunes and at www.theparlorreads.com

 

All readings take place at The Green Lantern 1511 N. Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Floor

(www.thegreenlantern.org)

For more information, please visit www.theparlorreads.com or contact theparlorreads@gmail.com

 

5) IN LIEU OF GIFTS: opens May 9th from 7-10pm; a solo show by Jenny Walters


Chicago, IL. (April 20, 2009) — From May 9 to June 6, 2009, The Green Lantern Gallery presents In Lieu of Gifts, featuring new works by Los Angeles-based, artist Jenny Walters.  For this solo presentation, Walters debuts photographs and video exploring the narrative impact of transformative life events, specifically the durability and mutability of personal identity and their aftermath.

A pervasive sense of feminine desire, vulnerability and desperation links a number of these pieces, but they are also marked by an attraction to universally theatrical gestures and scenarios that signal the complexities of relationships with oneself, others and the future.  The installation explores the issues of aging, mortality and performance while presenting visual information that allows the viewer to recognize and share the inherent intimacy in failure.  Constructing a sort of psychological anthropology via performance and the photo/video document, Walters recognizes that it is in our failures that we begin to see each other and ourselves and draw closer together. This point of power exchange, in all its manifestations and nuances, drives primal human connections. It is in the crumbling of personal mythologies that a deeper intimacy with her subjects and their possessions occurs.

Evoking a consciousness of nostalgia and absence, Walters’ work probes the idea that identity often exists in a fluid state.  It is in this investigation into stages of uncertainty–the doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self—that she so adeptly creates a visual experience of the uncanny or a sense of helplessness evoked by the anxiety of unknown emotions.

Walters’ portraits are characterized by an intimacy and quiet involvement with the subjects and places she selects. While there is an innate awareness of the historical, aesthetic paradigms of portraiture native to her work, she subverts many of the expectations of the form by inserting intentional transgressions in her process.  In her new work, she has chosen to construct and show images that capture the truth of unique moments as opposed to presenting a homogenous study over time.

Walters earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004 with a focus in video and photography.  She has exhibited her work in solo exhibitions, including Galeria Andre Kermer, Leipzig, Germany and has also been featured in group exhibitions at such venues as Vox Populi, Philadelphia; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; EAST International (a juried exhibition curated by Neo Rauch and Gerde Lybke) at Norwich Gallery, Norwich, England and Jen Bekman Gallery, New York.  She currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

In conjunction with this exhibition Walters is also releasing a limited edition portfolio of photographs.


6) ARTIST’S RUN CHICAGO
Exhibition Reception: Sunday, May 10, 3 – 5pm The Hyde Park Art Center will feature Artists Run Chicago, an exhibition showcasing the energy and audacity of some of the most noteworthy artist-run spaces that have influenced the Chicago contemporary art scene over the past decade on view from May 10 – July 5, 2009 in Gallery 1.  Chicago has long been known for cultivating a strong entrepreneurial/Do-It-Yourself spirit in business and the arts.  The participating artist-run venues have transformed storefronts, sheds, apartments, lofts, industrial spaces, garages and roving spaces into contemporary art galleries testing the notion of exhibition while complicating the definition of art.  Coinciding with the Hyde Park Art Center’s 70th anniversary, Artists Run Chicago reconnects the Art Center to its beginnings as an artist-run space by bringing much deserved attention to those outstanding spaces that continue to reinvent the mold unique to Chicago.

7) NAROC!3 Sunday, May 10th : A SCREENING! details TBA; doors open  at 7 and will include performance, screenings and a DJ Dance party to follow.

(also coming up but still to be announced: The Parlor’s 2nd Annual Emerging Writer’s Festival takes place on the 27th of May
+ the Milwaukee Avenue Bike Tour (also the 27th of May) + Joe Meno reads at the Parlor first Tuesday in June + Printer’s Row)

and finally
(drum roll)
the

7) IT’S YOUR TURN party
On the 13th of June, we will officially close our doors at this location. It has been an incredible experience running this space, and it would not be possible except for the support of the community; whether you came to visit, or volunteered, or hung your work here, collaborated, schemed, purchased, donated–whatever, this space, in some sense, belongs to everyone and for that reason, it’s worth having an awesome party about it. While the details are still being worked out, mark your calendars. We’re going to try and kick it off in the afternoon with some sort of BBQ, whereupon we will begin to make toasts, reading from the zine that Rachel Shine and Young Joon Kwok are so awesomely putting together. Of course, improvised on the spot toasts will be encouraged, and if you would like to create some sort of performance comemorating or reflecting on the Green Lantern, or similar spaces, let me know (lantern.g@gmail.com) and I’ll try to fit you into the schedule. Basically this is an opportunity for everyone to think about and celebrate what these organizations mean. In addition, there will be some readings from the Gazette, and (knock on wood, if all goes well) from Terri Griffith’s forthcoming (debut!) novel, and (again, knock wood) live music. There will be no cover; refreshments are available by donation and everything will shut down at 2 a.m.
At which point I’ll be taking a big long nap.

Again, the goal is to re-open in the fall of 2010, so keep your fingers crossed! (and thank you again and again)

CONTENT

April 22, 2009

posted by Rachel Shine

“Content” was included in the first issue of The Open Face Sandwich,  which happens to be one of our competitors for the Utne Independent Press Award.  But it’s the irregular form of storytelling that got to me.
The piece, in outline form, does what an outline should do: grabs attention  with the opening point, tells the story, and then concludes by referencing the  intro and hinting at future complexities.  But it also sufficiently tells the story  on its own.  Like Hemingway’s words.  Ambiguity makes a story, right?  I mean,  you fill in your own details and thus insert yourself, a piece of yourself, anyhow,
into the story.
But what else is it about ambiguity, about secrets and kept information, that  makes a story?  We talked about how one can read a story and know that  it’s true.  Absolutely happened.  And there’s a moment, you said, that catches  people off-guard.  Sorta makes them recoil because the intimacy is so apparent.
So maybe the trick of ambiguity is the opposite?  It gives the illusion of a universal story to which  one may apply their own vulnerability and keep it for themselves between the pages- to themselves.
Ambiguity allows the private moment to stay private.  Is that it?
Maybe.

C O N T E N T

Sarah Norck

*

1.    Crash! Go Ev and the unborn.
2.    Breaking the news to the father, Kiss, Ev had said in a wan, coy voice that they were cooking up a feast .
a.  As Kiss stayed quiet, the hinge of his jaw pulsing with clenches, she’d screamed he was a cook, wasn’t he?  So wasn’t this right up his fucking alley?  She’d taken his favorite milk-dish and dropped it at his feet.
i. Later, upon moving, upon sweeping and dusting and vacuuming a final time for the realtor, Kiss received a long, deep cut down to the bone in his first finger, from brushing up against the hall molding, from being down on his hands and knees trying to clear any last, invisible specks along the floor away, a more-watery-than-milky thorn-shaped shard tucked tight into the crevice.
3.    Into Ev and the unborn it’s a semi-truck come around the curve, fast.
a.  Boom.
b.  Rip.

posted by Rachel Shine

i found this poem “after hours” issue 10 at tower records.  remember them?  they sucked, but had good things to read.
anyway, poetry.
gary-steak-house

At the Triple-R Steak House in Clarion, Pennsylvania

Charles Rossiter

The waitress is an energetic young

college student, obviously

smart and outgoing. She takes

our orders for beer and steak

and brings them with a smile

so busy being herself,

she doesn’t know how good it is

for the rest of us

to see such open-faced joy

and optimism. Her whole future

is out there and she’s going to

make it work. She’s going to

be a teacher she says

and I can tell she’ll be good.

Listen, I say, as if

I’m telling her an important secret

which I am

because I like her already

and can tell she’ll listen,

when you get to those kids

show them Modigliani.

The little ones always go

for Modigliani.

She has no idea what I’m talking

about and I can’t blame her

but she’s listening

and she’s still with me

her curiosity is so transparent.

Listen, I say, when you get to class

next week tell your professor

Modigliani.

See what

he says to that. Tell him

you met someone at the steak house

who says Modigliani is the man.

Show him a couple of pictures

when you tell him.

It’s the long necks and almond eyes,

that gets them every time,

that and the something else

thing that happens

when the real and unreal meet.

Check it out yourself

you’ll see what I mean.

posted by Rachel Shine

originally published in a collection of essays by Wallace Stevens entitled “The Necessary Angel.’ It might be a long post, but it’s worth it….trust is essential to all readers.

15696048

The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet

Wallace Stevens

1

It appears that what is central to philosophy is its least valuable part.  Note the three scraps to follow.  First, part of a letter from Henry Bradley to Robert Bridges, as follows:

My own attitude towards all philosophies old and new, is very sceptical.  Not that I despise philosophy or philosophers; but I feel that the universe of being is too vast to be comprehended even by the greatest of the sons of Adam.  We do get, I believe, glimpses of the real problems, perhaps even of the real solutions; but when we have formulated our questions, I fear we have always substituted illusory problems for the real ones.

This was in reply to a letter from Bridges, in which Bridges appears to have commented on Bergson.  Then, second, it is Bergson that Paul Valéry called

peut-être l’un des derniers hommes qui auront exclusivement, profondément et supérieurement pensé, dans une époque du monde où le monde va pensant et méditant de moins en moins. . . . Bergson semble déjà appartenir à un âge révolu, et son nom est le dernier grand nom de l’histoire de l’intelligence européenne.

And yet, third, it is Bergson’s L’Evolution Créatrice that William James said in a letter to Berson himself:

You may be amused at the comparison, but in finishing it, I found the same after-taste remaining as after finishing Madame Bovary, such a flavor of persistent euphony.

2

If these expressions speak for any considerable number of people and, therefore, if any considerable number of people feel this way about the truth and about what may be called the official view of being (since philosophic truth may be said to be the official view), we cannot expect much inn respect to poetry, assuming that we define poetry as an unofficial view of being.  This is a much larger definition of poetry than it is usual to make.  But just as the nature of the truth changes, perhaps for no more significant reason than that philosophers live and die, so the nature of poetry changes, perhaps for no more significant reason than that poets come and go.  It is so easy to say in a universe of life and death that the reason itself lives and dies and, if so, that the imagination lives and dies no less.

Once on a packet on his way to Germany Coleridge was asked to join a party of Danes and drink with them.  He says:

I went, and found some excellent wines and a dessert of grapes with a pine-apple.  The Danes had christened me Doctor Teology, and dressed as I was all in black, with large shoes and worsted stockings, I might certainly have passed very well for a Methodist missionary.  However I disclaimed my title.  What then may you be . . . Un philosophe, perhaps?  It was at that time in my life in which of all possible names and characters I had the greatest disgust to that of un philosophe. . . . The Dane then informed me that all in the present party were Philosophers likewise. . . . We drank and talked and sung, till we talked and sung altogether; and then we rose and danced on the deck a set of dances.

As poetry goes, as the imagination goes, as the approach to truth, or, say, to being by way of the imagination goes, Coleridge is one of the great figures.  Even so, just as William James found in Bergson a persistent euphony, so we find in Coleridge, dressed in black, with large shoes and black worsted stockings, dancing on the deck of a Hamburg packet, a man  who may be said to have been defining poetry all his life in definitions that are valid enough, but which no longer impress us primarily by their validity.

To define poetry as an unofficial view of being places it in contrast with philosophy and at the same time establishes the relationship between the two.  In philosophy we attempt to approach truth through the reason.  Obviously this is a statement of convenience.  If we say that in poetry we attempt to approach truth through   the imagination, this, too, is a statement of convenience.  We must conceive of poetry as at least the equal of philosophy.  If truth is the object of both and if any considerable number of people feel very sceptical of all philosophers, then, to be brief about it, a still more considerable number of people must feel very sceptical of all poets.  Since we expect rational ideas to satisfy the reason and imaginative ideas to satisfy the imagination, it follows that if we are sceptical of rational ideas it is because they do not satisfy the reason and if we are sceptical of imaginative ideas, it is because they do not satisfy the imagination.  If a rational idea does not satisfy the imagination, it may, nevertheless, satisfy the reason.  If an  imaginative idea does not satisfy the reason, we regard the fact as in the nature of things.  if an imaginative idea does not satisfy the imagination, our expectation of it is not fulfilled.  On the other hand, and finally, if an imaginative idea satisfies the imagination, we are indifferent to the fact that it does not satisfy the reason, although we concede that it would be complete, as an idea, if, in addition to satisfying the imagination, it also satisfied the reason.  From this analysis, we deduce that an idea that satisfies both the reason and the imagination, if it happened, for instance, to be an idea of God, would establish a divine beginning and end for us which, at the moment, the reason, singly, at best proposes and on which, at the moment, the imagination, singly, merely meditates.  This is an illustration.  It seems to be elementary, from this point of view, that the poet, in order to fulfill himself, must accomplish a poetry that satisfies both the reason and the imagination.  It does not follow that in the long run the poet will find himself in the position in which the philosopher now finds himself.  On the contrary, if the end of the philosopher is despair, the end of the poet is fulfillment, since the poet finds a sanction for life in poetry that satisfies the imagination.  Thus, poetry, which we have been thinking of as at least the equal of philosophy, may be it superior.  Yet the area of definition is almost an area of apologetics.  The look of it may change a little if we consider not that the definition has not yet been found but that there is none.

3

Certainly the definition has not yet been found.  You will not find it in such works as those on the art of poetry by Aristotle and Horace.  In his edition of Aristotle’s work Principal Fyfe says that Aristotle did not even appreciate poetry.  In the time of Aristotle, there was no such word as literature in Greek.  Yet today poetry is literature more often than not; for poetry partakes of what may be called the tendency to become literature.  Life itself partakes of this tendency, which is a phase of the growth of sophistication.  Sophistication, in turn, is a phase of development of civilization.  Aristotle understood poetry to be imitation particularly of action in drama.  In Chapter 6, Aristotle states the parts of tragedy, among them thought and character, which are not to be confused.  He says that character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e., the sort of thing they seek or avoid—hence, there is no room for character in a speech on a purely indifferent subject.  The annotation of the editor is this:

A man who chooses, e.g., vengeance rather than safety reveals his character by exercise of Will.  A man who at dinner chooses grouse rather than rabbit reveals nothing, because no sane man would choose otherwise.

This sort of thing has nothing to do with poetry.  With our sense of the imaginative today, we are bound to consider a language that did not contain a word for literature as extraordinary even though the language was the language of Plato.  With us it is not a paradox to say that poetry and literature are close together.  Although there is no definition of poetry, there are impressions, approximations.  Shelley gives us an approximation when he gives us a definition in what he calls “a general sense.” He speaks of poetry as created by “that imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man.” He says that a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.  it is “indeed something divine.  It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge . . . the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds . . . it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life.” In spite of the absence of a definition and in spite of the impressions and approximations we are never at a loss to recognize poetry.  As a consequence it is easy for us to propose a center of poetry, a vis or noeud vital, to which, in the absence of a definition, all the variations of definition are peripheral.  Sometimes we think that a psychology of poetry has found its way to the center.  We say that poetry is metamorphosis and we come to see in a few lines descriptive of an eye, a hand, a stick, the essence of the matter, and we see it so definitely that we say if the philosopher comes to nothing because he fails, the poet may come to nothing because he succeeds.  The philosopher fails to discover.  Suppose the poet discovered and had the power thereafter at will and by intelligence to reconstruct us by his transformations.  He would also have the power to destroy us.  If there was, or if we believed that there was, a center, it would be absurd to fear or to avoid its discovery.

Since we have no difficulty in recognizing poetry and since, at the same time, we say that it is not an attainable acme, not some breath from an altitude, not something that awaits discovery, after which it will not be subject to chance, we may be accounting for it if we say that it is a process of the personality of the poet.  One does not have to be a cardinal to make the point.  To say that it is a process of the personality of the poet does not mean that it involves the poet as subject.  Aristotle said: “The poet should say very little in propria persona.” Without stopping to discuss what might be discussed for so long, not that the principle so stated by Aristotle is cited in relation to the point that poetry is a process of the personality of the poet.  This is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing, the modernizing and ever-modern influence.  The statement that the process does not involve the poet as subject, to the extent to which that is true, precludes direct egotism.  On the other hand, without indirect egotism there can be no poetry.  There can be no poetry without the personality of the poet, and that, quite simply, is why the definition of poetry has not been found and why, in short, there is none.  In one of the really remarkable books of the day, The Life of Forms a in Art, Henri Focillon says:

Human consciousness is in perpetual pursuit of a language and style.  To assume consciousness is at once to assume form.  Even at levels far below the zone of definition and clarity, forms, measures and relationships exist.  The chief characteristic of the mind is to be describing itself.

This activity is indirect egotism.  The mind of the poet describes itself in his forms, or as the mind of Cézanne described itself in his “psychological landscapes.” We are talking about something a good deal more comprehensive than the temperament of the artist as that is usually spoken of.  We are concerned with the whole personality and, in effect, we are saying that the poet who writes the heroic poem that will satisfy all there is of us and all of us in time to come, will accomplish it by the power of his reason, the force of his imagination and, in addition, the effortless and inescapable process of his own individuality.

It was of the temperament of the artist that Cézanne spoke so frequently in his letters, and while we mean something more, so, it seems, did Cézanne.  He said:

Primary force alone, id est temperament, can bring a person to the end he must attain.

Again:

With a small temperament one can be very much of a painter.  It is sufficient to have a sense of art. . . . Therefore institutions, pensions, honours can only be made for cretins, rogues and rascals.

And again, this time to Emile Bernard:

Your letters are precious to me . . . because their arrival lifts me out of the monotony which is caused by the incessant . . . search for the sole and unique aim. . . . I am able to describe to you again . . . the realization of that part of nature which, coming into our line of vision, gives the picture.  Now the theme to develop is that—whatever our temperament or power in the presence of nature may be—we must render the image f what we see.

And, finally, to his son:

Obviously one must succeed in feeling for oneself and in expressing oneself sufficiently.

4

An attempt has been made to equate poetry with philosophy, and to do this with an indication of the possibility that an advantage, in the long run, may lie with poetry; and yet it has been said that poetry is personal.  If it is personal in a pejorative sense its value is slight and it is not the equal of philosophy.  What we have  under observation, however, is the creative process, the personality of the poet, his individuality, as an element in the creative process; and by process of the personality of the poet we mean, to select what may seem to be a curious particular, the incidence of the nervous sensitiveness of the poet in the act of creating the poem and, generally speaking, the physical and mental factors that condition him as an individual.  If a man’s nerves shrink from loud sounds, they are quite likely to shrink from strong colors and he will be found preferring a drizzle in Venice to a hard rain in Hartford.  Everything is of a piece.  If he composes music it will be music agreeable to his own nerves.  Yet it is commonly thought that the artist is independent of his work.  In his chapter on “Forms in the Realm of the Mind,” M. Focillon speaks of a vocation of substances, or technical destiny, to which there is a corresponding vocation of minds; that is to say, a certain order of forms corresponds to a certain order of minds.  These things imply an element of change.  Thus a vocation recognizes its material by foresight, before experience.  As an example of this, her refers to the first state of the Prisons of Piranesi as skeletal.  But “twenty years later, Piranesi returned to these etchings, and on taking them up again one might say that he excavated this astonishing darkness not from the brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world.” The way a poet feels when he is writing, or after he has written, a poem that completely accomplishes his purpose is evidence of the personal nature of his activity.  To describe it by exaggerating it, he shares the transformation, not to say apotheosis, accomplished by the poem.  It must be this experience that makes him think of poetry as possibly a phase of metaphysics; and it must be this experience that teases him with that sense of the possibility of a remote, a mystical vis or noeud vital to which reference has already been made.  In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson speaks of the morality of aspiration.  It implicitly contains, he says,

the feeling of progress.  The emotion . . . is the enthusiasm of a forward movement . . . But antecedent to this metaphysical theory . . .  are the simpler representations . . . of the founders of religion, the mystics and the saints . . . They begin by saying that what they experience is a feeling of liberation. . . .

The feeling is not a feeling peculiar to exquisite or (perhaps, as better) precise realization, and hence confined to poets who exceed us in nature as they do in speech.  There is nothing rare about it although it may extend to degrees of rarity.  On the contrary, just as Bergson refers to the simpler representations of aspiration occurring in the lives of the saint, so we may refer to the simpler representations of an aspiration (not the same, yet not wholly unlike) occurring in the lives of those who have just written their first essential poems.  After all, the young man or young woman who has written a few poems and who wants to read them is merely the voluble convert or the person looking a mirror who sees suddenly the traces of an unexpected genealogy.  We are interested in this transformation primarily on the part of the poet.  Yet it is a thing that communicates itself to the reader.  Anyone who has read a long poem day after day as, for example, The Faerie Queene, knows how the poem comes to possess the reader and how it naturalizes him in its own imagination and liberates him there.

This sense of liberation may be examined specifically in relation to the experience of writing a poem that completely accomplishes the purpose of the poet.  Bergson had  in mind religious aspiration.  The poet who experiences what was once called inspiration experiences both aspiration and inspiration.  But that is not a difference, for it is clear that Bergson intended to include in aspiration not only desire but the fulfillment of desire, not only the petition but the harmonious decree.  What is true of the experience of the poet is no doubt true of the experience of the painter, of the musician and of any artist.  If, then, when we speak of liberation, we mean an exodus; if when we speak of justification, we mean a kind of justice of which we had not known and on which we had not counted; if when we experience a sense of purification, we can think of the establishing of a self, it is certain that the experience of the poet is of no less a degree than the experience of the mystic and we may be certain that in the case of poets, the peers of saints, those experiences are of no less a degree than the experiences of the saints themselves.  It is a question of the nature of the experience.  It is not a question of identifying or relating dissimilar figures; that is to say, it is not a question of making saints out of poets or poets out of saints.

In this state of elevation we feel perfectly adapted to the idea that moves and l’oiseau qui chante.  The identity of the feeling is subject to discussion and, from this, it follows that its value is debatable.  It may be dismissed, on the one hand, as a commonplace aesthetic satisfaction; and, on the other hand, if we say that the idea of God is merely a poetic idea, even if the supreme poetic idea, and that our notions of heaven and hell are merely poetry not so called, even if poetry that involves us vitally, the feeling of deliverance, of a release, of a perfection touched, of a vocation so that all men may know the truth and that the truth may set them free—if we say these things and if we are able to see the poet who achieved God  and placed Him in His seat in heaven in all His glory, the poet himself, still in the ecstasy of the poem that completely accomplished his purpose, would have seemed, whether young or old, whether in rags or ceremonial robe, a man who needed what he had created, uttering  the hymns of joy that followed his creation.  This may be a gross exaggeration of a very simple matter.  But perhaps that remark is true of many of the more  prodigious things of life and death.

5

The centuries have a way of being male.  Without pretending to say whether they get this character from their good heroes or their bad ones, it is certain that they get it, in part, from their philosophers and poets.  It is curious, looking back at them, to see how much of the impression that they leave has been derived from the progress of thought in their time and from the abundance of the arts, including poetry, left behind and how little of it comes from prouder and much noisier things.  Thus, when we think of the seventeenth century, it is to be remarked how much of the strength of its appearance is associated with the idea that this was a time when the incredible suffered most at the hands of the credible.  We think of it as a period of hard thinking.  We have only their records and memories by which to recall such eras, not the sight and sound of those that lived in them preserved in an eternity of dust and dirt.  When we look back at the face of the seventeenth century, it is at the rigorous face of the rigorous thinker and, say, Miltonic image of a poet, severe and determined.  In effect, what we are remembering is the rather haggard background of the incredible, the imagination without intelligence, from which a younger figure is emerging, stepping forward in the company of a muse of its own, still half-beast and somehow more than human, a kind of sister of the Minotaur.  This younger figure is the intelligence that endures.  It is the imagination of the son still bearing the antique imagination of the father.  It is the clear intelligence of the young man still bearing the burden of the obscurities of the intelligence of the old.  It is the spirit out of its own self, not out of some surrounding myth, delineating with accurate speech the complications of which it is composed.  For this Aeneas, it is the past that is Anchises.

The incredible is not a part of poetic truth.  On the contrary, what concerns us in poetry, as in everything else, is the belief of credible people in credible things.  It follows that poetic truth is the truth of credible things, not so much as that it is actually so, as that it must be so.  It is toward that alone that it is possible for the intelligence to move.  In one of his letters, Xavier Doudan says: “Il y a longtemps que celui qui n’arait que des idées claires serait assurément un sot.” The reply to this is that it is impossible to conceive of a man who has nothing but clear ideas; for our nature is an illimitable space through which the intelligence moves without cfoming to an end.  The incredible is inexhaustible but, fortunately, it is not always the same.  We come, in this way, to understand that the moment of exaltation that the poet experiences when he writes a poem that completely accomplishes his purpose, is a moment of victory over the incredible, a moment of purity that does not become any the less pure because, as what was incredible is eliminated, something newly credible takes its place.  As we come to the point at which it is necessary to be explicit in respect to poetic truth, note that, if we say that the philosopher pursues the truth in one way and the poet in another, it is implied that they are pursuing the same thing, and we overlook the fact that they are pursuing two different parts of a whole.  It is as if we said that the end of logic, mathematics, physics, reason and imagination is all one.  In short, it is as if we said that there is no difference between philosophic truth and poetic truth.  There is a difference between them and it is the difference between logical and empirical knowledge.  Since philosophers do not agree in respect to what constitutes philosophic truth, as Bertrand Russell (if any illustration whatever is necessary) demonstrates in his Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, even in the casual comment that truth as a static concept is to be discarded, it may not be of much use to improvise a definition of poetic truth.  Nevertheless, it may be said that poetic truth is an agreement with reality, brought about by the imagination of a man disposed to be strongly influenced by his imagination, which he believes, for a time, to be true, expressed in terms of his emotions or, since it is less of a restriction to say so, in terms of his own personality.  And so stated, the difference between philosophic truth and poetic truth seems to become final.  As to the definition itself, it is an expedient for getting on.  We shall come back to the nature of poetic truth very shortly.

In the most propitious climate and in the midst of life’s virtues, the simple figure of the youth as virile poet is always surrounded by a cloud of double characters, against whose thought and speech it is imperative that he should remain on constant guard.  These are the poetic philosophers and the philosophical poets.  Mme. De Staël said: “Nos meilleurs poétes lyriques, en France, ce sont peut-être nos grands prosateurs, Bossuet, Pascal, Fénelon, Buffon, Jean-Jacques. . . .” M. Claudel added Rabelais, Chateaubriand, even Balzac, and when he did so, M. René Fernandat said: “On remarquera que M. Claudel a supprimé les ‘peut-être’ de Mme. De Staël.” In English the poetic aspect of Bunyan is quite commonly recognized.  This is an occasion to call attention to William Penn as an English poet, although he may never have written a line of verse.  But the illustration of Descartes is irresistible.  To speak of figures like Descartes as double characters is an inconceivable difficulty.  In his exegesis of The Discourse on Method, Leon Roth says:

His vision showed him first the “dictionary,” then the “poets,” and only afterwards the est et non; and his “rationalism,” like the “anti-rationalism” of Pascal, was the product of a struggle not always completely successful.  What less “rationalistic” could there be than the early thought preserved by Baillet from the Olympica (one may note in passing the poetical names of all these early works):  “There are sentences in the writings of the poets more serious than ion those of the philosophers. . . . There are in us, as in a flint, seeds of knowledge.  Philosophers adduce them through the reason; poets strike them out from the imagination, and these are the brighter.” It was the “rationalist” Voltaire who first called attention to the “poetic” in Descartes. . . .  To the casual reader there is nothing more remarkable than the careless richness of his style.  It is full of smilies drawn not only from the arts, like architecture, painting and the stage, but also from the familiar scenes of ordinary and country life. . . . And this is not only in his early writing.  It is apparent even in his latest published work, the scientific analysis of the “passions of the soul,” and it was Voltaire again who commented first on the fact that the last thing from his pen was a ballet written for the Queen of Sweden.

The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists.  The poet merely enjoys existence.  The philosopher thinks of the world as an enormous pastiche or, as he puts it, the world is as the percipient.  Thus Kant says that the objects of perception are conditioned by the nature of the mind as to their form.  But the poet says that, whatever it may be, la vie est plus belle que les idées. One needs hardly to be told that men more or less irrational are only more or less rational; so that it was not surprising to find Raymond Mortimer saying in the New Statesman that the “thoughts” of Shakespeare or Raleigh or Spencer were in fact only contemporary commonplaces and that it was a Victorian habit to praise poets as thinkers, since their “thoughts are usually borrowed or confused.” But do we come away from Shakespeare with the sense that we have been reading contemporary commonplaces?  Long ago, Sarah Bernhardt was playing Hamlet.  When she came to the soliloquy “To be or not to be,” she half turned her back on the audience and slowly weaving one hand in a small circle above her head and regarding it, she said, with deliberation and as from the depths of a hallucination:

D’être ou ne pas d’être, c’est là la question . . .

and one followed her, lost  in the intricate metamorphosis of thoughts that passed through the mind with a gallantry, an accuracy of abundance, a crowding and pressing of direction, which, for thoughts that were both borrowed and confused, canceled the borrowing and obliterated the confusion.

There is a life apart from politics.  It is this life that the youth as virile poet lives, in a kind of radiant and productive atmosphere.  It is the life of that atmosphere.  There the philosopher is an alien.  The pleasure that the poet has there is a pleasure of agreement with the radiant and productive world in which he lives.  It is an agreement that Mallarmé found in the sound of

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui

and that Hopkins found in the color of

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder.

The indirect purpose or, perhaps, it would be better to say, inverted effect of soliloquies in hell and of most celestial poems and, in a general sense, of all music played on the terraces of the audiences of the moon, seems to be to produce an agreement with reality.  It is the mundo of the imagination in which the imaginative man delights and not the gaunt world of the reason.  The pleasure is the pleasure of powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation.  The morality of the right sensation.

6

I have compared poetry and philosophy; I have made a point of the degree to which poetry is personal, both in it origin and in its end, and have spoken of the typical exhilaration that appears to be inseparable from genuine poetic activity; I have said that the general progress from the incredible to the credible was a progress in which poetry has participated; I have improvised a definition of poetic truth and have spoken of the integrity and peculiarity of the poetic character.  Summed up, out position at the moment is that the poet must get rid of the hieratic in everything that concerns him and must move constantly in the direction of the credible.  He must create his unreal out of what is real.

If we consider the nature of our experience when we are in agreement with reality, we find, for one thing, that we cease to be metaphysicians.  William James said:

Most of them [i.e., metaphysicians] have been invalids.  I am one, can’t sleep, can’t make a decision, can’t buy a horse, can’t do anything that befits a man; and yet you say from my photograph that I must be a second General Sherman, only greater and better!  All right! I love you for the fond delusion.

For all the reasons stated by William James, and for many more, and in spite of M. Jacques Maritain, we do not want to be metaphysicians.  In the crowd around the simple figure of the youth as virile poet, there are metaphysicians, among the others.  And having ceased to be metaphysicians, even though we have acquired something from them as from all  men, and standing in the radiant and productive atmosphere, and examining first one detail of that world, one particular, and then another, as we find them by chance, and observing many things that seem to be poetry without intervention on our part, as, for example, the blue sky, and noting, in any case, that the imagination never brings anything into the world but that, on the contrary, like the personality of the poet, in the act of creating, it is no more than a process, and desiring with all the power of our desire not to write falsely, do we not begin to think of the possibility that poetry is only reality, after all, and that poetic truth is a factual truth, seen, it may be, by those whose range in the perception of fact—that is, whose sensibility—is greater than our own?  From that point of view, the truth that we experience when we are in agreement with reality is the truth of fact.  In consequence, when men, baffled by philosophic truth, turn to poetic truth,. They return to their starting-point, they return to fact, not, it ought to be clear, to bare fact (or call it absolute fact), but to fact possibly beyond their perception in the first instance and outside the normal range of their sensibility.  What we have called elevation and elation on the part of the poet, which he communicates to the reader, may be not so much elevation as an incandescence of the intelligence and so more than ever a triumph over the incredible.  Here as part of the purification that all of us undergo as we approach any central purity, and that we feel in its presence, we can say:

No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur.  This is another of the monsters I had for nurse, whom I have wasted.  I am myself a part of what is real, and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or ever shall.

These words may very well be an inscription above the portal to what lies ahead.  But if poetic truth means fact and if fact includes the whole of it as it is between the extreme poles of sensibility, we are talking about a thing as extensible as it is ambiguous.  We have excluded absolute fact as an element of poetic truth.  But this has been done arbitrarily and with a sense of absolute fact as fact destitute of any imaginative aspect whatever.  Unhappily the more destitute it becomes the more it begins to be precious.  We must limit ourselves to saying that there are so many things which, as they are, and without any intervention of the imagination, seem to be imaginative objects that it is no doubt true that absolute fact includes everything that the imagination includes.  This is our intimidating thesis.

One sees demonstrations of this everywhere.  For example, if we close our eyes and think of a place where it would be plesant to spend a holiday, and if there slide across the black eyes, like a setting on a stage, a rock that sparkles, a blue sea that lashes, and hemlocks in which the sun can merely fumble, this inevitably demonstrates, since the rock and sea, the wood and sun are those that have been familiar to us in Maine, that much of the world of fact is the equivalent of the world of the imagination, because it looks like it.  Here we are on the border of the question of the relationship of the imagination and memory, which we avoid.  It is important to believe that the visible is the equivalent of the invisible; and once we believe it, we have destroyed the false imagination, the false conception of the imagination as some incalculable vates within us, unhappy Rodomontade.  One is often tempted to say that the best definition of poetry is that poetry is the sum of its attributes.  So, here, we may say that the best definition of of true imagination is that it is the sum of our faculties.  Poetry is the scholar’s art.  The acute intelligence of the imagination, the illimitable resources of its memory, its power to possess the moment it perceives—if we were speaking of light itself, and thinking of the relationship between objects and light, no further demonstration would be necessary.  Like light, it adds nothing, except itself.  What light requires a day to do, and by day I mean a kind of Biblical revolution of time, the imagination does in the twinkling of an eye.  It colors, increases, brings to a beginning and end, invents languages, crushes men and, for that matter, gods in its hands, it says to women more than it is possible to say, it rescues all of us from what we have called absolute fact and while it does these things, and more, it makes sure that

. . . la mandoline jase,

Parmi les frissons de brise.

Having identified poetic truth as the truth of fact, since fact includes poetic fact, that is to say: the indefinite number of actual things that  are indistinguishable from objects of the imagination; and having, as we hope, washed the imagination clean, we may now return, once again, to the figure of the youth as virile poet and join him, or try to do so, in coming to the decision, on which, for him and for us, too, so much depends.  At what level of the truth shall he compose his poems?  That is the question on which he is reflecting, as he sits in the radiant and productive atmosphere, which is his life, surrounded not only by double characters and metaphysicians, but by many men and many kinds of men, by many women and many children and many kinds of women and of children.  The question concerns the function of the poet today and tomorrow, but makes no pretense beyond.  He is able to read the inscription on the portal and he repeats:

I am myself a part of what is real and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or ever shall.

He says, so that we can all hear him:

I am the truth, since I am part of what is real, but neither more nor less than those around me.  And I am imagination, in a leaden time and in a world that does not move for the weight of its own heaviness.

Can there be the slightest doubt what the decision will be?  Can we suppose for a moment that he will be content merely to make notes, merely to copy Katahdin, when, with his sense of the heaviness of the world, he feels his own power to lift, or help lift, that heaviness away?  Can we think that he will elect anything except to exercise his power to the full and at its height, meaning by this as part of what is real, to rely on his imagination, to make his own imagination that of those who have none, or little?

And how will he do this?  It is not possible to say how an imaginative person will do a thing.  Having made an election, he will be faithful to the election that he has made.  Having elected to exercise his power to the full and at its height, and having identified his power as the power of imagination, he may begin its exercise by studying it in exercise and proceed little by little, as he becomes his own master, to those violences which are the maturity of his desires.  The character of the crisis through which we are passing today, the reason why we live in a leaden time, was summed up in a note on Klaus Mann’s recent book on Gide, as follows:

The main problem which Gide tries to solve—the crisis of our time—is the reconciliation of the inalienable rights of the individual to personal development and the necessity for the diminution of the misery of the masses.

When the poet has converted this into his own terms: the figure of the youth as virile poet and the community growing day by day more and more colossal, the consciousness of his function, if he is a serious artist, is a measure of his obligation.  And so is the consciousness of his history.  In the Reflections on History of Jakob Burckhardt, there are some pages of notes on the historical consideration of poetry.  Burckhardt thought (citing Schopenhauer and Aristotle) that poetry achieves more for the knowledge of human nature than history.  Burckhardt considers the status of poetry at various epochs, among various peoples and classes, asking each time who is singing or writing, and for whom.  Poetry is the voice of religion, prophecy, mythology, history, national life and inexplicably, for him, of literature.  He says:

It is a matter for great surprise that Virgil, in those circumstances, could occupy his high rank, could dominate all the ages which followed and become a mythical figure.  How infinitely great are the gradations of existence from the epic rhapsodist to the novelist of today!

This was written seventy-five years ago.  The present generation of poets is not accustomed to measure itself by obligations of such weight nor to think of itself as Burckhardt seems to have thought of epic bards or, to choose another example at random, of the writers of hymns, for he speaks of “the Protestant hymn as the supreme religious expression, especially of the seventeenth century.”

The poet reflecting on his course, which is the same thing as a reflection by him and by us, on the course of poetry, will decide to do as the imagination bids, because he has no choice, if he is to remain a poet.  Poetry is the imagination of life.  A poem is a particular of life thought of for so long that one’s thought has become an inseparable part of it or a particular of life so intensely felt that the feeling has entered into it.  When, therefore, we say that the world is a compact of real things so like the unreal things of the imagination that they are indistinguishable from one another and when, by way of illustration, we cite, say, the blue sky, we can be sure that the thing cited is always something that, whether by thinking or feeling, has become a part of our vital experience of life, even though we are not aware of it.  It is easy to suppose that few people realize on that occasion, which comes to all of us, when we look at the blue sky for the first time, that is to say: not merely see it, but look at it and experience it and for the first time have a sense that we live in the center of a physical poetry, a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that exists there—few people realize that they are looking as the world of their own thoughts and the world of their own feelings.  On that occasion, the blue sky is a particular of life that we have thought of often, even though unconsciously, and that we have felt intensely in those crystallizations of freshness that we no more remember than we remember this or that gust of wind in spring or autumn.  The experiences of thinking and feeling accumulate particularly in the abnormal ranges of sensibility; so that, to use a bit of M. Focillon’s personal language, while the “normative type” of poet is likely to be concerned with pretty much the same facts as those with the genius, or, rather, the youth as virile poet, is concerned, the genius, because of the abnormal ranges of his sensibility, not only accumulates experiences with greater rapidity, but accumulates experiences with qualities of experience accessible only in the extreme ranges of sensibility.

But genius is not our concern.  We are trying to define what we mean by the imagination of life, and, in addition, by that special illumination, special abundance and severity of abundance, virtue in the midst of indulgence and order in disorder that is involved in the idea of virility.  We have been referring constantly to the simple figure of the youth, in his character of poet, as virile poet.  The reason for this is that if, for the poet, the imagination is paramount, and if he dwells apart in his imagination, as the philosopher dwells in his reason, and as the priest dwells in his belief, the masculine nature that we propose for one that must be the master of our lives will be lost as, for example, in the folds of the garments of the ghost of ghosts of Aristotle.  As we say these things, there begins to develop, in addition to the figure that has been seated in our midst, composed, in the radiant and productive atmosphere with which we have surrounded him, an intimation of what he is thinking as he reflects on the imagination of life, determined to be its master and ours.  He is thinking of those facts of experience of which all of us have thought and which all of us have felt with such intensity and says:

Inexplicable sister of the Minotaur, enigma and mask, although I am part of what is real, hear me and recognize me as part of the unreal.  I am the truth but the truth of that imagination of life in which with unfamiliar motion and manner you guide me in those exchanges of speech in which your words are mine, mine yours.

How To Tell A Story

March 20, 2009

by Rachel Shine

How to Tell a Story

Mark Twain

I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told.  I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert storytellers for many years.
There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.  I will talk mainly about that one.  The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French.  The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.
The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point.  The humorous story bubbles gently along; the others burst.
The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it, but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it.  The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through.  And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again.  It is a pathetic thing to see.
Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it.  Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.
Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.  Dan Setchell used it before him.  Nye and Riley and others use it today.
But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you—every time.  And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation points after it, and sometimes explains it in parenthesis.  All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.
Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote which has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years.  The teller tells it in this way:
THE WOUNDED SOLDIER
In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out his desire.  The bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man’s head off—without, however, his deliverer being aware of it.  In no long time he was hailed by an officer, who said:
“Where are you going with that carcass?”
“To the rear, sir—he’s lost his leg!”
“His leg, forsooth?”  responded the astonished officer; “you mean his head, you booby.”
Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity.  At length he said:
“It is true, sir, just as you have said.”  Then after a pause he added, “But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG!!!!!”

Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time through his gaspings and shriekings and suffocatings.
It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form; and it isn’t worth the telling, after all.  Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to—as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.
He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor.  But he can’t remember it; so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that don’t belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; making minor mistakes now and then and stopping to correct them and explain how he came to make them; remembering thing which he forgot to put in in their proper place and going back to put them in there; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier’s name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway—better, of course, of one knew it, but not essential, after all—and so on, and so on, and so on.
The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has to stop every little while to hold himself in and keep from laughing outright; and does hold in, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down their faces.
The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious.  This is art—and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.  Another feature is the slurring of the point.  A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking out loud.  The fourth and last is the pause.
Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal.  He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absentminded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did.
For instance, he would say eagerly, excitedly, “I once knew a man in New Zealand who hadn’t a tooth in his head”—here his animation would die out; a silent, reflective pause would follow, then he would say dreamily, as if to himself, “And yet that man could beat a drum better than any man I ever saw.”

for-rachels-post1

A Personal Response to

“On Love” by Alain de Botton

by Rachel Shine

“My name is Rachel, I’m from Chicago.  I want to say thanks for nothing to Derek for breaking up with me on Monday instead of coming over for sandwiches,” I said into a camera recently.  No offence, Derek; I’m only playing around- this is what we do.  We “clumsily seek” (8).  (Now, as I’m about to share, I’m experiencing some nervousness due to the intimacy of the subject.  I continue, though, because humans being humans is something to be proud of.  Or at least open about.)  We’re learning.

He was not the guy I imagined myself with.  I thought I’d fall for a Mexican Art Historian or an experimental musician and philosophy major from Montana.  But when we were together, I felt comfortable and confident because his personality felt familiar to me.  We shared a fear that our fathers’ health could take them from us; we have tattoos on our wrists that mean related things to us; he played in a band that I was a fan of in high school.  “Small details, perhaps, but were they not grounds enough on which believers could found a new religion?” (9).

We laughed together and shared philosophies.  It seemed each understood things about the other that others did not.  It was exciting, then, when our interests diverged because we could teach each other about subjects like punk rock, fauvism or 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We could grow together while retaining our individual interests.  It seemed perfect because while not demanding much from each other we still had someone there to support and be supported by with our presence alone.  “Though the dice may roll any number of ways, we frantically draw up patterns of necessity, never more than when it is the inevitability that one day we will fall in love” (18).  And why not now?

So I imagined that our meeting at work was perfectly cinematic and fantasized about futures together.  My aunt invited the two of us to visit her in Vancouver, Washington and we planned out what to show him, who has never been to the Pacific Northwest.  But in the end I’d ignored the “unthinkable thought that the need to love is always prior to our love for anyone in particular” and when it fell apart, I learned that now is not the time.  Our differences and my appreciation of the independence our relationship allowed for means he is not an absolute necessity in my life.  And I respect his call to leave.