Literary Criticism

Frank Kermode

John Sutherland interviews Frank Kermode in today's Guardian:

Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics". The recent A-level and GCSE statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. "Well," he replies, "I don't know what they call 'English' now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don't hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it." … Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular "hard" subjects - like physics? "Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it's no longer compulsory at GCSE to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision." I remind him of a staff meeting at UCL where, gloomily, he acquiesced to the administration's instruction that O-level Latin be dropped as a requisite for incoming students. "We had no choice. Latin has been getting abolished now for two generations."

In one of his recent LRB pieces he recollects a period in the 1950s when studying English literature was not just regarded as important, but as the most valuable intellectual and moral activity a civilised man or woman could pursue. What went wrong? Does he feel any personal responsibility? "I don't suppose I could claim either credit or blame for the collapse of my subject. It's partly the extinction - no, that's too strong a word - the fading of the influence of figures such as FR Leavis [the Cambridge critic]. The notion that the study of English had powerful ethical implications, powerful social implications, has gone. We just don't have it any more.

"Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years the first thing that occurs to me is how very important the subject once seemed. In America the New Criticism - a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people. Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye's is now a name that you never hear mentioned but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien too was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I've been mentioning but they won't be as famous nor as influential. There's some very good scholarship in the subject still going on. There's also an immense amount of rubbish. …

"[Theory] attracted quite a lot of opprobrium. I never thought it should be taught to undergraduates. In those days teaching graduates what was then essentially French theory was exciting, as long as you were in control of what you were doing. I'm reminded of what Wayne C Booth (another of those once-famous critics) said: 'The really difficult thing is to understand why one has to work so hard to understand something that you do every day without the slightest difficulty' - reading a book, that is.

"I don't at all think that the time we spent on Theory was wasted. One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you're forced to read a lot of other things. You may not have a very deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering".

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Labyrinths and Internet

Fascinating, and frustrating, posting at things magazine: I'm not sure why the advent of 'global communications technology' is seen as leading to the demise of reliquaries, and I certainly don't date the going of the 'divine on the defensive' to about a 100 years ago — that's being going on since at least the sixteenth century. As Cornelius Ernst (see here, paras 6 & 7; Tim's address), my favourite twentieth century theologian, puts it: 'I cannot think of a single clerical philosopher of real distinction since the Middle Ages (and whether it is appropriate to speak of any medieval thinker as a 'philosopher' is of course problematic)'.

But I was interested by this (thanks to Matt Webb for drawing my attention to it):

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. … The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by
Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

… Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiosities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril.

The internet as 'a receptacle for wonder': I linked last year to something Matt Jones posted about awe and wonder and the net. The image of the net as labyrinthine library containing all knowledge makes me think of Dante's great image in the Paradiso (Canto XXXIII; Borges' fantastical library of course recalls this, in deliberately distorted form), when he looks into the heart of the eternal light and 'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe' ('Nel suo profondo vidi che s' interna, / legato con amore in un volume, / ciò che per l'universo si squaderna', Temple Classics translation).

'Reliquary' I am less sure about. I think it more useful at this point to do more work on the net-as-memory (individual +) and on what light might be (unexpectedly) shed upon this by studies such as Penelope Reed Doob's The Idea of the Labyrinth — which dedicates some pages to the relationship between labyrinth imagery and medieval understanding of memory and memory practices (on which, I recall, there's Mary Carruthers' book, The Book of Memory, amongst much else). Gabriel Josipovici years ago drew attention to the labyrinth as 'the favourite image of modern literature', 'the mazes of Kafka, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Robbe-Grillet' (The World and the Book). It takes me further than I meant to go in this post, but I can't resist quoting this from Gabriel's book:

In place of Dante's ordered journey we find ourselves involved with heroes who wander without map or compass along paths which are endless for the simple reason that we would not recognise the end even if we came to it. … there is no emergence for the heroes of modern fiction from the labyrinths of reflecting mirrors and demonic analogy. At the end they are no nearer the exit than they were at the beginning. All they have done is move through all the arteries of the labyrinth. Yet this, if they but knew it, is both the exit and the answer. … the writing was the travelling.
Unlike Dante, we have no vantage point from which to 'look back, standing on solid ground, over the winding uphill way, with its little figures of men and women dotted about at various stages of their own ascent' (The World and the Book). The internet, without end, is our own faithfully reflecting mirror, or demonic analogy.

Godot ++

Guardian letters:

Indeed, directing so successfully the first performance in English of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre in 1955 put Peter Hall in a unique position to lead British theatre, as he has, for the next 50 years (Godot almighty, August 24). But he should have mentioned that his luck was really due to the brilliance of the young Sasha Moorsom (later Lady Young of Dartington), who brought him the play, in French, in 1954, having got it from her friend, the French actor Roger Blin. He was recovering in St Tropez from the stress of playing Lucky. And we were all young contemporaries of Peter's at Cambridge, holidaying there that summer. It's good to acknowledge these connections.

Margaret Owen (Salisbury, Wilts), 27 August


No wonder Roger Blin was "recovering" after En Attendant Godot (Letters, August 27). He not only played Pozzo (not Lucky, who was played by Jean Martin), but he also directed the play - and the first production at the Théâtre Babylone in Paris had more than 300 performances.

Apropos the name Godot: I listened to Peter Hall recently on Radio 4 and he made no mention of the fact that the two tramps originally wore bowler hats, and the clowning (donning/doffing/inspecting the hats) might connect Godot with Charlot (as the French affectionately call Charlie Chaplin). Among other stories of Godot's provenance is one that Beckett told Blin the name suggested itself from the slang godilot and godasse (boot). Another is that Beckett was inspired at a Tour de France by spectators who said they were still waiting for the final and eldest cyclist: "Nous attendons Godot." Beckett wrote in a letter "Je ne sais pas qui est Godot."

Diana Fernando (Wissett, Suffolk), 5 September


Diana Fernando (Letters, September 5) fails to cite the provenience that Godot is a corrupted Anglicised diminutive form of the word God.

Chris Bleakley (Prague), 6 September


Re Godot (Letters, September 6): Balzac's play Mercadet (Le Faiseur) has a potential saviour who fails to appear, and is called Godeau.

Ray Walsh (Liverpool), 7 September


Waiting for Godot

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On!

To Bath yesterday to see Peter Hall's fiftieth anniversary production of Waiting for Godot. In August 1955, he directed the English-language premiere; this production is his fourth.

Waiting for Godot hasn't dated at all. It remains a masterpiece transcending all barriers and all nationalities. And it could have been written today: there is nothing of the 50s about it. It is the start of modern drama and it gave the theatre back its metaphorical power. Godot challenged and then removed 100 years of literal naturalism where a room could only be considered a room if it was presented in full detail with the fourth wall removed. (Peter Hall, Guardian)

Peter Hall's 1997 (Old Vic) programme piece can be read here. Michael Billington's review of the current production is here:

Laurenson's Didi, with his soft Irish accent and battered topper, is a bit of a piss-elegant poseur. But there is something fiercely protective about his attitude to his lifelong partner: there is a revealing moment, at the start of the second act, when Laurenson picks up Gogo's stinking boot, sniffs it and cradles it lovingly in his arms. In sharp contrast, Dobie's white-bearded Gogo is tetchy, acerbic, scavenging and pragmatic. Yet he is unspeakably hurt at the idea that his partner survived the night without him. We all know Didi and Gogo are one of the most famous double acts in drama, but this production suggests Beckett's play is also about the asexual love that stems from shared endurance.

This was a wonderful production and Richard Dormer's Lucky was particularly outstanding: always affecting, his barely human presence was at times disturbingly raw — and a tribute, too, to the relationship he and Terence Rigby (Pozzo) created. When they reappeared in Act Two, Pozzo blind and Lucky mute, it was (again disturbingly) what Billington calls 'their fateful mutual dependence' that registered most.

John Naughton quotes Kenneth Tynan:

By all the known criteria, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum. Pity the critic who seeks a chink in its armour, for it is all chink. It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end. Unavoidably, it has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it deals with the impatience of two tramps, waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but the situation is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive. Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through, as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than anything in the books. A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.

Simon Callow has a piece (also in the Guardian) on the play and its influence:

After 1940, his work had undergone a radical change. If he was to write about impotence and ignorance, which he now conceived to be the essential experience of human life, he must, he said, abandon rhetoric and virtuosity. The English language having a natural propensity for both of these, he abandoned it, henceforward writing in clean and analytical French, swiftly writing three great novels, Molly, Malone Dies and The Unnameable in his adopted language, each of which is in the form of a soliloquy; none of them knew any immediate success and, indeed, it was almost impossible to find publishers for them. His decision to write for the theatre was, Lawrence Graver acutely notes, a part of this stripping away: in doing so, he eliminates the voice of the narrator. …

It took two years for Blin to raise the money and get a theatre; finally, when the play opened in January 1953 at the nearly defunct Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, it was greeted with a mixture of critical bewilderment, a certain amount of active audience hostility, partisan enthusiasm from some highly influential quarters (Jean Anouilh, the most successful French dramatist of the day, called it the most important theatrical premiere in 40 years) and straightforward delight from the paying audience, who attended the show in ever-growing numbers. It was word of mouth that swung it. …

There is indeed a good case for thinking of the play as a dream play in its repetitiveness, its circularity, its sudden absurdities, its arbitrariness and savage eruptions. Estragon can barely keep awake, and sleep is a blessed state because the sleeper is oblivious of life's terrible reality: "He is sleeping. He knows nothing. Let him sleep on." The characters themselves seem to shift shape oneirically: out of the blue, Vladimir becomes an eloquent philosopher, quoting Latin tags; Estragon announces that "we are not caryatids"; for no known reason Pozzo is suddenly blind, Lucky suddenly dumb. An uneasy sense of unreality pervades everything: "You're sure you saw me?" Vladimir asks the boy. "You won't come back tomorrow and say you never saw me?" Just as in Strindberg's Dream Play, where Agnes's repeated cries of "Poor, suffering mankind!" pierce the action, Didi and Gogo constantly cry out, apropos of nothing in particular, "What'll we do?! What'll we do?!" …

"I know no more about this play than anyone who just reads it attentively," Beckett wrote. "I don't know what spirit I wrote it in. I know no more about the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them . . . everything I have been able to learn, I have shown. It's not a great deal. But it's enough for me, quite enough. I'd go so far as to say that I would have been content with less . . . Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, I have only been able to know them a little, from far off, out of a need to understand them. They owe you some explanations, perhaps. Let them unravel. Without me. Them and Me, we're quits."


Sejanus

We want the fine Arts, and their thriving use,
Should make us grac'd, or favour'd of the times:
We have no shift of Faces, no cleft Tongues,
No soft and glutinous Bodies, that can stick,
Like Snails, on painted Walls;

To Stratford last Thursday, to see the RSC's production of Ben Jonson's, Sejanus: His Fall (text here). It's the first time I've seen it, it's the first time the RSC has staged it and, according to Michael Billington, it's rarely been revived in the last 400 years. It held me — an excellent production of a play of considerable political cynicism and savagery that speaks readily to our time.

Sejanus seducing Livia, wife of Drusus

Michael Billington (Guardian):

What is startling about the play is how it straddles three time periods. It is a neo-classic tragedy about ancient Rome. It is also rooted in Jacobean power politics and, in its study of a master-servant relationship, anticipates Volpone. Yet it is easily applicable to modern times. When Sejanus announces that the way to advance Tiberius's rule is "to present the shapes of dangers greater than they are", he speaks like a devious CIA boss. But the book-burning evokes Hitler's Germany and when Sejanus's statue is torn down we are into Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All the play lacks, apart from good female roles, is any first-hand encounter with the people themselves.

But the mastery of Doran's production lies in its blend of psychology and politics. William Houston's superb Sejanus is a pony-tailed, bisexual adventurer for whom power is the ultimate aphrodisiac: I shall long remember his triumphant leap at the prospect of becoming Tiberius's heir. With equal skill, Barry Stanton plays the emperor as a consummate political actor; stepping round a trail of blood on the senate floor, he distances himself from the violence he sanctions.

Even if virtue is marginalised, Geoffrey Freshwater, James Hayes and Nigel Cooke are outstanding as a trio of troubled patricians recalling Rome in its heyday. And both Paul Englishby's brass-filled score and Robert Jones's pillared setting evoke a world of decadence. But what truly exhilarates is the rediscovery of a play that shows Jonson's understanding of both the practical mechanics and insane corruption of power.

Dominic Cavendish has a review in the Telegraph and there's a shorter piece by Benedict Nightingale in the Times.

The King's Men performed Sejanus in 1603, Shakespeare acting in it (probably taking the role of Tiberius). The text we now have may differ from that of 1603: Jonson said 'a second pen' co-wrote some sections that he removed subsequently. A disastrous reception at the Globe was followed by official censure, the playwright being called before the Privy Council to answer charges of treason and popery. (Did this charge lead to Jonson revising the play?)

Anne Barton says: 'Tragedy normally draws in towards a centre, vested either in an individual or a family. But Sejanus flies out in all directions, providing no clearly defined focal point. … Like the comical satires, and unlike Jonson's first three Jacobean comedies, Sejanus is a large-cast play. It crowds the stage with people, many of them glimpsed only fleetingly. Major characters spring up … without warning, or abruptly disappear from view … None of these people are, in any obvious sense, humour characters. Most of them will end up dead, as opposed to being merely humiliated and disillusioned. All the same, this is tragedy only in a very special sense.'

At times closer to satire, frequently fascinated by the grotesque and savage, the play ends on a note of terrible brutality, the instigator (Tiberius) safely absent and indulging himself in Capri — and with a further cycle of betrayal and violence to come since Macro, apparently loyal to Tiberius, has aligned himself with Caligula. The distance between us and Sejanus is so different from the bond we form with Volpone, yet both plays have at their heart a master-parasite relationship (as Billington notes). Volpone grows out of Sejanus, but also marks a most significant development in Jonson's art as he came to create a focus through our 'subversive sympathy with the clever rogue' (Martin Butler, programme note).

Scene V.iv is the encounter with Fortune, the one deity Sejanus has time for. Earlier (II.ii) he had said,

'Twas only fear first in the world made gods',

but in V.i he tells Terentius, 'Her (Fortune) I, indeed, adore; / And keep her grateful image in my house'. Brilliantly directed, V.iv might have brought us at last to something of that core experience of tragedy, where men and women come face to face with forces that rule their lives. (Auden: 'We are lived by powers we pretend to understand'.) However, confronted by unfavourable signs from the goddess, Sejanus now mocks Fortune and her rites as superstition — 'juggling mystery, religion', 'cozening ceremonies' — and it doesn't come across as hubris but precisely as impatience with superstition. I think Anne Barton is right to say that in Jonson, 'such things (as the ominous signs from Fortune) become not only suspect but incipiently comic'. She goes on: 'Jonson, in this play, makes trifles of terrors instead of ensconcing himself in an unknown fear. The result is to strip away a dimension upon which most classical, as well as Elizabethan and Jacobean, tragedy had depended. For him, the very considerable horrors of Tiberius' Rome derive entirely from the brutality of the way men behave to one another, not from any sense of the mysterious workings of Fate or divine will.'

The discontinuity between Sejanus' "atheism" and his downfall, the lack of interiority (Cavendish: 'failure to establish … characters whose fates you care about'), disappoints some. I wonder …  I remember that Mitterand was once asked what the most important political quality was. He replied, 'l'indifference'. Isn't part of the appeal of the play (I hope it prospers now) that it offers a view of the political world which is frightening precisely because it is presented as a world where interiority is not cultivated, where, beyond the short-term satisfaction of revenge, victims, opponents and compatriots are quickly forgotten? It's a world that's absurd, savage, repetitive, cyclical … and destined to self-consume. Unless Fortune, the one deity worth believing in (for a while), smiles on you: then, you're a successful snail, excelling at sticking on painted walls (for a while).


Red: subject as collage

Anne Carson, classicist (McGill University, Montreal; also Calgary, Princeton, Emory, Michigan, Berkeley …), poet and painter. Author of: Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay and Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (criticism); at least six collections of poetry — Glass, Irony and God, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Autobiography of Red, Men in the Off Hours, The Beauty of the Husband, Decreation: Essays, Poetry and Opera; Short Talks (chapbook); Fragments of Sappho and Electra (translations); The Mirror of Simple Souls (libretto) … My list is no doubt incomplete. Ian Rae in The Literary Encyclopedia (entry dated 2001) says: 'She lives alone in a rented apartment in Montreal where she continues to write, using one desk for her academic projects and one for her poetic endeavours. … Carson has also begun producing one-of-a-kind books consisting of photographs, paintings, and poems that she compiles by hand and distributes among friends'.

I've just finished Autobiography of Red, the first book of hers I've read. It is a long poem, wrapped around with mock-academic material which nevertheless is steeped in learning. At its heart lies the story of Geryon, 'a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia', The Red Place, and whose story was once told, in a very long lyric poem, by the now largely forgotten and prolific author, Stesichoros (born c 650 BC): three-bodied Geryon and his cattle, the object of attention of Herakles' tenth labour. In the proem, Carson writes: 'If Stesichoros had been more of a conventional poet he might have taken the point of view of Herakles and framed an account of the victory of culture over monstrosity.' Barbarians outside the citadel: the Other. Instead, Stesichoros' poem tells the story 'from Geryon's own experience':

We see his red boy's life and his little dog. A scene of wild appeal from his mother, which breaks off. Interspersed shots of Herakles approaching over the sea. A flash of the gods in heaven pointing to Geryon's doom. The battle itself. The moment when everything goes suddenly slow and Herakles' arrow divides Geryon's skull. We see Herakles kill the little dog with His famous club.

For credits and detailed notes, click on each photo


Stesichoros' poem survives now only in fragments (Geryoneis, "The Geryon Matter"), no passage longer than 30 lines — 'papyrus scraps … (which) withhold as much as they tell'. I understand that, along with confusion of genres, collage has always been important to Carson, and it is no surprise that for her the fragments of Stesichoros' poem make for 'a tantalizing cross-section of scenes, both proud and pitiful'. Moreover, Stesichoros, famed in antiquity ('most Homeric of the lyric poets' — Longinus), evidently fascinates Carson. In the proem she says of adjectives that they 'seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being'. The proem continues:

Of course, there are several different ways to be. In the world of the Homeric epic, for example, being is stable and particularity is set fast in tradition. When Homer mentions blood, blood is black. When women appear, women are neat-ankled or glancing. … The sea is unwearying. Death is bad. … Homer's epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption. There is a passion in it but what kind of passion? "Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code," says Baudrillard. So into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. And Stesichoros was studying the surface relentlessly. It leaned away from him. He went closer. It stopped. "Passion for substances" seems a good description of that moment. For no reason that anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches. Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver. Or a child bruiseless. … Or Herakles ordeal strong.

Autobiography of Red started life as prose, but 'Carson was dissatisfied with the result and broke down the novel's structure into distinct sections: an essay on the Greek poet Stesichoros, translated fragments of Stesichoros' Geryoneis, a lyric sequence based on the Geryoneis, a palinode, a mock interview, and two appendices. The novel's seven sections recall the seven sections of the Greek nomos or lyric performance for which Stesichoros was famous' (Ian Rae).

The scholarly wrap-around has been called 'a wickedly parodistic parallel universe to the novel inside it--a time-machine recasting, with the tart, dry humor of one of Borges' scholarly-fantastic inventions' (Elizabeth Macklin, Boston Review). Kate Moses, writing in Salon, notes 'the seemingly incongruous elements of Western canonical references and contemporary autobiography, making each seem both fresh and unquestionably related'. What lies at the centre is 47 chapters, Carson's own tale of Geryon. Of these chapters, between one and seven pages long, Macklin has commented:

(they) are in alternating long and short lines, short lines reading at first like reconsiderings of the long-afterthoughts, emendations. The form soon comes to seem almost a supplementary punctuation, an accurate respiration for the semi-skeptical tone, sometimes for emphasis. Although rhymeless, the chapters are narrative lyrics, with their own titles: "Ideas," "Sex Question," "Hades," "Pair."

Carson's own tale of Geryon takes place nowhere near Erytheia. Macklin again:

"Geryon lived on an island in the Atlantic," his autobiographer writes, although elsewhere the place can sound Canadian. "Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon's father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone." It's at 3 a.m. in a bus depot that Geryon meets Herakles, in Chapter 7 ("Change"), which begins: "Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence."

Reworking Stesichoros, Carson presents the Geryon/Herkales relationship as,

a (contemporary) destructive love affair … Hercules does not kill Geryon, he breaks his heart. Her Geryon is a winged red monster but also a gifted American boy. … Sexually abused by an older brother, inarticulately attached to his chain-smoking mom, he becomes a photographer. His redness and wings stand for creativity, its power and its pain. (''Everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated him'' to ridicule.) Since Hercules is Action Man, unreflective testosterone personified, their relationship is inevitably fraught. (''Jesus,'' says Hercules, ''I hate it when you cry.'' He wants Geryon to enjoy sex, as he does himself, without the awful complexity of thinking.) So this poem is about knowing and loving a man who has a good time with you, but will never know you back. Geryon's redness is his inmost being, his selfhood, but Hercules dreams about him in yellow. ''Even in dreams he doesn't know me at all,'' Geryon thinks. Hercules exists ''on the other side of the world''; Geryon arcs his back alone in torment, ''upcast to . . . the human custom of wrong love.'' Ruth Padel, NYT

At this point I found myself thinking of Iris Murdoch and her Romanes Lecture (Oxford) for 1976, published subsequently as The Fire and the Sun. Carson, too, has explored Eros in a non-fictional work, Eros the Bittersweet (1986):

Carson begins with Sappho's description of desire as “bittersweet” and argues that “[a]ll human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies”. Noting that the Greek term eros signifies “want” or “lack”, Carson develops a theory of desire in which Eros mediates between subject and object, deferring the attainment of desire, but also creating the desire for desire. Carson then applies this quasi-Derridean theory to ancient Greek lyric and romance, all the while formulating the ideas on desire that would come to dominate her poetic output. (Ian Rae)

The poem's narrative and lyrical power absorbed my interest right until the end:

After the affair he lives a ''numb life'' until, years later in Buenos Aires, he bumps into Hercules again. Hercules, with his new Peruvian boyfriend, Ancash, takes Geryon to an Andes village whose inhabitants believe winged red people are volcano survivors -- people who have been in flame and lived. Here the sexual triangle triggers violence, but ultimately a healingly creative insight. For unlike Stesichoros, Carson is interested in Geryon's survival through art. Geryon's photographic lens is a wonderfully rich image for what Carson herself is doing in her book. As Stesichoros got his sight back by reinterpreting myth, Carson's reinterpretation turns myth into the recording and surviving of pain through the viewfinder of poetry. Like ''Lava Man,'' a volcano survivor whose veins hold ''ocher-colored drops that sizzled when they hit the plate,'' Geryon comes through volcanic passion and out the other side. He is the eyewitness of catastrophe survived. (Ruth Padel)

*****

Aleatoric Art! Ian Rae says that the essay is a “try” for Carson, a medium of experiment. Stalking these essay-poems for me is the spirit of Montaigne's Essais, 'classical skepticism  … with all its anticipations of Wittgenstein' (Stephen Toulmin). (Carson has also written 'Irony is not enough' — link below). Scepticism of course extends here to embrace literary genre, too — Rae again (on Glass, Irony and God): 'The poems in this collection showcase Carson's talent for combining seemingly incompatible genres (such as the lyric and essay) and subjects (such as TV and Socrates)'. John Kinsella on Red: 'Its intertextual weaving of popular culture, myth, sexual comment, theory and narrative, is greatly accomplished. It’s a verse novel in effect, though some might call it prose. It operates on tensions in the process of “translation” and mythology, narrative and the moment in time. … This is a metatext in which Geryon analyses his own life, his own “being written”.' Ruth Padel:

The images, connections and ideas -- the whole well-stored mind pulsing behind this book -- are as extravagant and sweet as Stesichoros, and push the lyric, as he did, beyond conventional bounds. The poems are meditative as well as narrative: they reflect on photography as sexual learning (''Got your lens cap?'' asks mom, as teen-age Geryon flies out the door), on volcanoes and Emily Dickinson, on the Platonic image of wings as the creative aspect of love. Whether or not the beloved is worth the pain, wings lift the true lover's soul into immortality. … Carson varies their tone wonderfully, in perfect control all the way from dry wit to high poeticism (''A winter sun had thrown its bleak wares on the sky''). She counterpoints domesticity with ecstasy, the profound with the bizarre. (An all-night tango singer is an off-duty psychoanalyst; an encounter with guerrillas is reflected in the eye of a roast guinea pig; passengers clutch toothbrushes on a night flight over the Andes while Hercules pleasures Geryon under the Aeroperu blanket.) And Carson writes in language any poet would kill for: sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender, brilliantly lighted.

In Red, Carson writes of Stesichoros' poem:

… the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and some scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box. "Believe me for meat and for myself," as Gertrude Stein says. Here. Shake.

*****

From 'Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros':

Geryon lay on the ground covering his ears The sound
Of the horses like roses being burned alive …

Arrow means kill It parted Geryon's skulls like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude breeze

From 'Autobiography of Red':

Voyaging into the rotten ruby of the night became a contest of freedom
and bad logic. …

He burned in the presence of his mother.
I hardly know you anymore, she said leaning against the doorway of his room.
It had rained suddenly at suppertime,
now sunset was startling drops at the window. Stale peace of old bedtimes
filled the room. Love does not
make me gentle or kind, thought Geryon as he and his mother eyed each other
from opposite shores of the light. …

It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came roaring across the garden at him.
He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against the window screen. Most
of those he interviewed for the science project had to admit they did not hear
the cries of the roses
being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully,
like horses in war. No, they shook their reads. …

Your are interested in justice?
I'm interested in how people decide what sounds like a law.
So what's your favorite law code?
Hammurabi. Why? Neatness. For example? For example:
"The man who is caught
stealing during a fire shall be thrown into the fire." Isn't that good?—if
there were such a thing
as justice that's what it ought to sound like—short. Clean. Rhythmical. …

I will call it "Origin of Time",
thought Geryon as a terrible coldness came through the room from somewhere.
It was taking him a very long while
to set up the camera. Enormous pools of a moment kept opening around his hands
each time he tried to move them.

Coldness was planing the sides of his vision leaving a narrow canal down which
the shock— Geryon sat
on the floor suddenly. He had never been so stoned in his life. I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. It is all wrong.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. What was that? said one of the others
turning towards him centuries later. …

We are amazing beings,
Geryon is thinking. We are neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,
night at their back.

*****

  • ' "swimming at noon always reminds me of Marilyn Monroe" - Etruscan saying' can be read here
  • 'Tango II' from The Beauty of the Husband, and part of 'Irony Is Not Enough: Essay On My Life as Catherine Deneuve (2nd draft)' from Men in the Off Hours here
  • 'Tango XII' from The Beauty of the Husband, 'Here’s Our Clean Business Now Let’s Go Down the Hall to the Black Room Where I Make My Real Money', here
  • 'And Reason Remains Undaunted', here

Sappho, Rexroth et al

Some Sappho links:

'Sappho everywhere chooses the emotions that attend delirious passion from its accompaniments in actual life. Wherein does she demonstrate her supreme excellence? In the skill with which she selects and binds together the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion. … Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions.' Longinus, On the Sublime

Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982) on Sappho, Herodotus and The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bureau of Public Secrets and its Kenneth Rexroth Archive.


Edward Said, 1935–2003

In The Guardian, Daniel Barenboim remembers his close friend, Edward Said — an excellent pianist who, Barenboim believes, drew deeply on his love and knowledge of music in formulating his judgements about literature and post-colonialism:

In recent years, due to his terrible illness, he was unable to maintain the level of physical energy necessary to play the piano. I remember many unforgettable times that we spent playing Schubert pieces for four hands. Two or three years ago, I had a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York and he was going through a very difficult period of his illness. The concert was on a Sunday afternoon. Although he knew that I had arrived that very morning from Chicago, he showed up very early at rehearsal with a volume of Schubert's pieces for four hands. He told me: "Today I want us to play at least eight bars, not for the pleasure of playing, but because I need it to survive."

As you can imagine, at that moment, just in from the airport and with one hour of rehearsal before the afternoon's concert, the last thing I wanted to do was to play Schubert for four hands. But, as is always the case, when you teach you learn, and when you give you receive. And you learn when you teach because the student asks questions that you no longer even ask yourself, because they are part of the almost automatic thought which each one of us develops. And suddenly, the question addresses something that forces us to rethink it from its origin, from its very essence. ...

His concept of inclusion also derived from music, as well as the integration principle. The same could be applied to his book Orientalism. It speaks of the idea of Oriental seduction versus western production. In music, there is no production without seduction. Productive as a musical idea may be, if it is lacking the seduction of the necessary sound, it is insufficient. This is why I say that Edward Said was, for many, a great thinker, a fighter for the rights of his people, and an incomparable intellectual. But for me, he was always, really, a musician, in the deepest sense of the term.

Said's Guardian obituary can be found here, and Tom Paulin's celebration of Said's life and work (another Guardian piece) is here. Other articles and tributes about Said, published since his death, are listed here at 3quarksdaily.


Jacques Derrida, 1930–2004

Jacques Derrida, father of Deconstructionism, has died (BBC News).

"Deconstruction" is the name given to a radical and wide-ranging development in the human sciences, especially philosophy and literary criticism, initiated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in a series of highly influential books published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including (in translation): Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, Margins of Philosophy, and Dissemination. "Deconstruction," Derrida's coinage, has subsequently become synonymous with a particular method of textual analysis and philosophical argument involving the close reading of works of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and anthropology to reveal logical or rhetorical incompatibilities between the explicit and implicit planes of discourse in a text and to demonstrate by means of a range of critical techniques how these incompatibilities are disguised and assimilated by the text. In one of its typical analytical procedures, a deconstructive reading focuses on binary oppositions within a text, first, to show how those oppositions are structured hierarchically; second, to overturn that hierarchy temporarily, as if to make the text say the opposite of what it appeared to say initially; and third, to displace and reassert both terms of the opposition within a nonhierarchical relationship of "difference." ...

The concept of difference is crucial to Derrida, who uses it to "deconstruct" Western philosophy, which he argues is founded on a theory of "presence," in which metaphysical notions such as truth, being, and reality are determined in their relation to an ontological center, essence, origin (archè), or end (telos) that represses absence and difference for the sake of metaphysical stability. The best-kept secret of Western metaphysics is thus the historical repression of difference through a philosophical vocabulary that favors presence in the form of voice, consciousness, and subjectivity. Derrida calls this philosophy "logocentrism" or "phonocentrism" in that it is based on a belief in a logos or phonè, a self-present word constituted not by difference but by presence (Writing and Difference 278-82). Logocentrism, for Derrida, represents Western culture's sentimental desire for a natural or Adamic language whose authority is guaranteed by a divine, transcendental signified. On the surface, language seems unwilling to face up to its human arbitrariness, yet on closer inspection it also appears to call attention to its differential structure: language at once posits and retracts its own desire for presence.

Derrida's deconstructive method proceeds by means of slow and ingeniously detailed close readings of texts, focusing on those points where a binary opposition (e.g., signifier/signified, presence/absence, nature/culture, literal/figural, outside/inside), a line of argument, or even a single word breaks down to reveal radical incongruities in the logic or rhetoric. Unlike ambiguity, irony, or paradox, these incompatibilities cannot be harmonized in the service of textual "unity" or "integrity," terms that for Derrida would be synonymous with "self-presence." Instead, the contradictions expose the text to the force of its own difference, its displacement from a univocal center of meaning. They show that what a text says and how it says it do not converge but simultaneously strive toward and defer convergence. Deconstruction always reveals difference within unity.

The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism


Shakespeare and Southampton

Back in April, 2002, Anthony Holden, writing in The Observer, introduced the wider world to an Elizabethan portrait, owned by the Cobbe family, believed to be of Lady Norton, daughter of the Bishop of Winton.

Then came the day, only a few years ago, when Alastair Laing, the National Trust's adviser on art and sculpture, told Cobbe he believed the portrait was not of a woman, but of a young man apparently dressed as a woman. Cobbe was intrigued. As he researched his family history for a recent exhibition of its treasures at Kenwood House in London, under the auspices of English Heritage, he wondered who this effeminate young man might be. In the process, he discovered previously unknown connections between his own family and the Wriothesleys, Earls of Southampton, dating back to Elizabethan times and beyond. But it was not until earlier this year, he says, after the Kenwood exhibition had closed, that 'the penny finally dropped. Suddenly I realised that the face reminded me of pictures I had seen during my research into my family's history. "My God," I thought, "could this be the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron and, perhaps, his lover?"'

Southampton

Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton (1573–1624), was painted on a number of occasions. Here is a detail of a particularly well-known portrait:

Southampton_2.jpg

Jonathan Bate has some reflections on these portraits and the Sonnets.