Results tagged “William Blake” from this Public Address 2.0

Year's End

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Year’s End

I was looking back through my archived material and realized that I haven’t been able to clearly explain just what I’ve been working on since August. I’ve posted a lot of sketches which probably only succeeded in confusing people further. What’s been missing, for the people who only see this stuff on my weblog, is the constant explaining/defining that goes on as I move it toward the proposal stage at school.

I’ve sketched several introductions, and submitted one proposal that resulted in around thirty pages of text— all about the eighteenth century. I wanted to try to explain why I think it’s important as the year closes, as much for myself as for anyone else. It surprises me that I’ve only been researching it for five months. It seems much longer than that, mostly because I now have several feet of shelf-space dedicated to this material.

So forgive me if you’ve read some of this before, but I want to try and write it as concisely as I can to remind myself as I get lost in the myriad of tangents.

The research project began while I was writing a series of blog posts about Walker Evans. Researching Evans, it began to blow me away just how many miles of text had been generated about him. Of course, I’d collected a foot or so of material on him over the years, because he was one of my early heroes as a photographer. Evans disdained politics— and the art world. I empathized with that deeply. It seemed to me that Evans wanted to take pictures that were somehow free of the taint of both. Most of my knowledge of Evans came from a time long before I’d studied language philosophy or rhetoric. Now, his views (and my own for most of my career as a photographer) seem hopelessly naive.

As I bought more books on Evans and tracked down articles it seemed like anything that could possibly be said about Evans had been said— with only one minor hole— the literary influences. So I dug into Hart Crane and others, not so much because I imagined that I could do anything in the way of a thesis in Rhetoric about it, but because I just wanted to know more. As I explored the milieu Evans moved through in the thirties, I noticed a huge disparity in the sheer volume of words generated about him and his collaborator James Agee and all the rest— the difference is at least a hundred to one. It was understandable at first— I wasn’t alone in considering these men to be the “heroes” of documentary photography.

I remember how much Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed my life. It wasn’t just Evans’ incredible photographs. It was Agee’s heartfelt text. When I moved to Arkansas around six years ago, I remember loaning my copy to a local poet. He gave it back with a note— “thanks for giving me the chance to deconstruct this crappy prose.” Recently, I’ve run across several references to Evan’s feeling that many parts of Agee’s text were “embarrassing.” None of this has shifted my admiration of the textual portion of the book— it’s naked, and raw, and not really about the supposed subject Evan’s photographs were meant to document. Agee’s text is really about the sheer futility of documentary, and about the self-deconstructing nature of valediction. Agee’s worst nightmares have come true— his text is neatly ensconced on the bookshelf of classics.

It’s easy to chalk up differences of opinion on Agee’s text as a matter of taste. The sheer density of critical writing about it, and the tension it provides for Evans’ photographs seems to assure that the book rests comfortably in a sort of cultural aporia, free from the Marxist dissection of the proletarian and nationalist rhetoric that was all the rage during the 1930s. Most of the commentaries on other works from this period are scathing and derogatory. I really started to wonder why. Why are Evans and Agee universally hailed as heroes? Just what is a damn hero anyway?

I was reading Aphra Behn, and was impressed by her plea to the audience in the preface to The Lucky Chance that she wanted to be a hero in 1686. William Blake, who I have spent many years studying, was intensely concerned with the overthrow of classic models of heroism. Perhaps our present concept of heroes was developed in the eighteenth century? As I started to fill in some gaps in my literature education (Fielding, Defoe, Swift) it seemed clear that heroic consciousness was dealt with in a nearly obsessive fashion— and the peak of the New Deal in the 1930s brought with it a new sort of proletarian heroe, where rather than favoring the individual as hero we want to erect effigies to whole groups— unknown soldiers, firemen, you name it— as if to be a hero in the classic sense was anathema.

Another tangent loomed as I stepped into Emerson and Carlyle’s concept of the “representative man”— I need to deal with the formative years in the American national identity in the early nineteenth century. I spent at least three months on the eighteenth century, and never really finished. I’ve spent a lot of time just gathering material too, as more and more texts from the 1930s come to light. This is big, and far too unmanageable for a master’s thesis. But now I have the lay of the land. If I want to explore heroic rhetoric, I really know where to look now.

But why? Because as I uncovered those other texts, I found many of them to be innovative, and deeply influential even though no one seems to be writing about them much. It’s as if there is only one channel of input into considerations of documentary pursuits— the heroic artistic outsider exemplified by Evans. Only Evans defied the “government stooge” represented by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA. Though a growing amount of material is being generated which heroizes the “file” of 100,000+ pictures now in the public domain generated by the FSA. I’m torn now about what I want to do. On one level, I want to deal with the photographers and writers lost in the torrent of texts about Evans and Agee. On the other, I do want to deal with the nature of the FSA file.

The FSA was the first and last government funded “commons” where creative materials were made open and accessible to the public, free of copyright. Recent research I’ve been doing has highlighted the “unmediated” nature of Franklin Roosevelt’s access to American public opinion through his fireside chats— the parallels with contemporary issues on the Internet are fascinating.

And then, there is the theory behind the concept of heroism. I do believe that heroism is not synonymous with “power” in the Foucaultian sense, or “cultural capital” a la Bourdieu— I think there are other forces at work, completely outside these concepts. The persistence of “heroism” is not addressed very well by other theories. Barbara Kruger (or Tina Turner, if you prefer) can proclaim all day long that “we don’t need another hero,” but as Thomas Carlyle argued in the early nineteenth century, apparently we do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many books, films, and pictures made about it.

So that’s where the year ends for me— deep in the middle of all this, trying to figure out which piece to chisel off for a Master’s thesis. That’s where my “work” these days is. I keep sailing along this titanic central idea, brushing against icebergs that regularly rip open my sides and cause me to sink into yet another round of research.

Back from the storm

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Back from the storm

I was thinking about my first obsession. When I heard Electric Ladyland when I was ten years old, I rapidly felt the desire to possess it. But the kid who played it for me wouldn’t part with it. I could only to manage to trade my Rand McNally world globe for scratched-up copy of Smash Hits. I think I was thirteen years old before I figured out that Jimi Hendrix was black. Even after I did, it didn’t seem important at all. It didn’t make him any more different, or exotic, or interesting. I think its because there was nothing that could possibly make him more interesting— I had already made up my mind that I had to have everything he ever recorded. Maybe it was the publicity surrounding his death that made me think about it. The media mentioned it, but the color of his skin seemed positively trivial. What was important to me was the music, and the idea that the incredible music could stop.

No one was like him. It was like an incredible new language that I could understand like few people I knew could. I suspect that’s what bonded me so deeply with my brother Stephen. I could tell that he felt it too. It wasn’t the words, it was the sound. The sound of a mind at work. I used to joke, as I turned into an adolescent, that I needed to put a sign on my door: Jimi Hendrix spoken here. My mind traced and soared with every nuance of those solos. It was if they took you places, places that no one else traveled. They didn’t follow a standard progression, or if they did, there was always a deep curve at the end that lead somewhere. I didn’t find his music ethereal, but rather incredibly concrete. Hendrix never left you hanging in space, and to this day when I put on his music it’s like traveling down the streets of my hometown, a hometown in my mind. Long before Shelley’s Skylark, there was Hendrix’s Nightbird.

I had to try to explain last night why William Blake was so special to me. The best term I could come up to describe the interaction between text and image was that it was a conversation. Sometimes, the image undercuts the text. Sometimes, it reinforces it. Sometimes it nuances it. But it always interacts with it actively, neither part is ever lazy, or rote, or meaningless. Listening to Hendrix today, I realized I could say the same thing about him. The music and words are inseparable, and while the music is often dominant, like Blake’s words, they cannot be separated without a great cost to this process of making meaning. As I find myself lost in thoughts too complex to relate, I can’t shake the urge that it has to go somewhere. You just can’t fade away into space— a lesson that far too few musicians or writers fail to heed.

I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to chase the thoughts down, and see where they lead? I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to bring this all together somehow? I need to figure out how words and pictures fit together, beyond the program of their separate meanings. Though I don’t think about it that much, I suppose Hendrix and Blake are my skylarks, and like Shelley, I wish they could—

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now

Maybe one day I’ll be able to hear Blake in my head as well as I hear Hendrix. I no longer need the albums I was so driven to collect. I can hear each one in my imagination, on demand. Those notes have been seared upon my brain. Now that I think about it, I probably only pull something out once every couple of years. But sometimes I’ll see something, and hear those notes in my head. It happens when I get near home.

despond

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Christian in the Slough of Despond — William Blake

dreaming

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John Bunyan dreams a dream — William Blake

Images and Print

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From Image to Print

I managed to get Photography and the Book, a lecture by Beaumont Newhall printed in a limited edition of 2000 on interlibrary loan. My hat is off to Gary Saretzky for alerting me to it in his articles on Edwin Rosskam for Photo Review.I’ve got issues with Newhall, due to his close association with Ansel Adams and the myopic nature of his History of Photography but that doesn’t keep this particular lecture from being incredibly informative. From the first page, it has me rewriting some of my efforts. The connection between photography and printing is even stronger than I first thought. While Humphry Davy’s failed experiments were a clue— Davy and Wedgwood were looking for a way to avoid employing engravers— I had not thought about Niépce before.

A quick search turned up an incredible site on Nicéphore Niépce. The material there helps me in putting together a revised timeline with fewer gaps. But before I do that, I feel the need to return to the hopes and desires of the people involved. The aspirations of Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy are clear from the title of their 1802 Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain article, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” Thinking about that title, usually abbreviated simply “An Account of a Method,” makes me realize how much the disparity between nineteenth century photography and the twentieth is exaggerated— the contexts are not really that different. Looking at it closely, method (agent) is privileged over the desired result (action).

First, photography is a method of copying— in Davy and Wedgwood’s case, of copying paintings. This legacy, brought to fruition by Henry Fox-Talbot, is subtly shifted into copying nature. Casting this into another light, Davy and Wedgwood were interested in reproducing texts (logos) whereas Talbot was interested in evidence of a different sort— nature— mirroring the search for authority common to most eighteenth century praxis.

The problematic nature of authority involved in any practice of copying is deeply explored in the writings and art of William Blake— a crisis exacerbated by the low artistic station of engravers. The conventions of captioning for engravings reflect this. Long into the nineteenth century, it was the painter (or inventor) of an image whose name appeared first in the visual field, on the left, whereas the engraver (sculptor) was placed in the lower right-hand corner. Mechanical reproduction of original works would remove the need for the second caption, and the interference of an intermediary on the “truth” of the image. The search was for a more direct route for authority in copying, whether of nature or art.

The second consideration, “of Making Profiles,” is a more commercial one. Given the limitations in detail and slow speed of light-sensitive materials, they might be a possible technological improvement on a rising commercial art practice of the day— making silhouettes. I had already been thinking about the rise of the daguerreotype and the death of commercial miniature painting in the early nineteenth century— but I had not thought of the poor man’s miniature— the silhouette. These had long been produced through the mechanical help of the pantograph. Davy and Wedgwood’s declaration foretells an interesting confluence: the satisfaction of the popular appetite for images through technological means. The appetite for representations of people as both a commercial endeavor and as scientific evidence for theories wishing to join internal states with external appearance was rising during the late eighteenth century.

Thanks to Newhall’s assertion (echoed in a more recent essay by Michel Frizot in A New History of Photography) that Niépce was alone among the early pioneers of photography in connecting photography with engraving, I just had to think about Davy again. I think they are wrong— reproducibility may have taken a back-seat with the rise of Daguerre, but the concern was prominent in many early experimenters. The goal, at least initially, was a direct route between the eye and paper— a mechanical means of reproduction.

Higher Innocence

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Higher Innocence

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by a improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

I read this for the first time when I was fourteen years old. I tracked it down once I found out that this passage, and not Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception was the root for the name of The Doors. Through the lens of age (and more in-depth study of Blake) it seems well worth revisiting right now. Several nuances need to be explored, beyond the sentimental rebellious perception of either myself, as a boy, or Jim Morrison’s limited understanding of Blake— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a sales pitch for psychedelic drugs. Blake was not a Satanist. Going back to the third plate, here is the definition Blake offers of Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Performing the easy substitutions (and noting the ironic nature of “Hell”) it is clear from this that Blake’s “infernal method” is caustic, melting away the “apparent surfaces” of things, to reveal the “infinite” that is hid. I would submit to my compatriots Duemer and Delacour that the infinite is not hid by sentiment, but rather through an underdeveloped notion of what “sentiment” really is— reverting to a Chaucerian definition— sentiment is deeper than sensation alone, and beyond the chinks of the cavern. The apocalypse of vision which Blake proposes shall come about by “the improvement of sensual enjoyment,” through the reintegration of body and mind. Revelation happens when the notion that “mind” and “body” are distinct and separate is destroyed. All discourse involves feelings; commonplace feelings, or sentiments, are really the first step on the ladder toward deeper ways of feeling— what Blake scholars call “higher innocence.”

My adulation of transparency, of dispassionate inquiry into representation using people like Walker Evans as idols has become deeply tempered by acceptance that all expression evokes— and includes— feelings which though easily exploited, are inseparable from art. Discarding the commonplace sentiments is an exercise which was for me essential to the pursuit— not of dispassionate knowledge— but of higher feelings. I know this is what Duemer and Delacour are really on about. I'm just playing with the vocabulary, obviously. The mode of inquiry which purges sentiment can be a trap as well, worse than anything that might be lost by too deep an exploration of sentimentality. Too much corrosion destroys the plate— it’s a delicate balance. Growth happens through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” not the purging of it. That is what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about (at least in part).

The oppression of sentiment does not really get you closer to truth— it merely promotes oppression, control, reason. Sentiment naturally fades with experience— it need not be purged. In Literature in its Place, James Britton cites some really beautiful evidence from the empirical study of reactions to poetry. Almost universally, adults reject poetry which contains powerful emotions— unless they are cloaked in complexity. Why this happens is hard to say— I suspect that it’s because of the social construction of identities that are trained to distance themselves from their bodies, their feelings— the rejection of sentiment is very pronounced as we reach adulthood. Using a group of poems, some “real” poems and some horribly sentimental fabrications, Britton charted the reactions of children from 13-18 years old. The fabrications were enjoyed by adolescents, but older children gradually began to prefer less overt expressions of emotion. Britton has an interesting theory about the cause:

We suggested at the time that under the strain of the emerging adult world, the adolescent may need to withdraw into some imagined world: when the strain is too great, it may be into the most docile and accessible world that he or she withdraws— a world represented by sentimental values. In matters of emotion, the familiar and safe kind of love— love of animals, pity— may be acceptable where passionate love is too threatening. (46)

The summation of that study, quoted in the book, echoes the sentiments of Warren Zevon and Charles Lamb that I quoted last night:

Such imagined experience— the stock response, the unoriginal, undisturbing type— gives time to recover balance, but does not itself allow for grown, reintegration, advancement into living. For this we must try to graft genuine poetic experience onto the counterfeit, regarding a taste for the counterfeit in adolescence as the first rung on the ladder rather than the first step to damnation. (47)

Feeling, or sentiment, is an important first step. It’s important that the progression from it to deeper and more complex feelings be natural and not forced. I like Britton’s usage of graft to describe the process of growing to appreciate deeper things. Many artists flirt with the sentimental and some (like Kertéz), have the depth to portray truly poetic experiences within the most commonplace of frames. This flirtation with the child-like, sentimental world— an improvement of “sensual enjoyment” is in many ways what I think Blake was on about regarding higher innocence.

Silence is Sexy

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Perversity

Silence is sexy. “Better to be silent and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” (I don’t recall the source). I can embrace that thought. I cannot, however embrace the idea that silence can somehow be a perversely declarative utterance.

In linguistics, a declarative is a particular form of utterance that can be said to constitute a truth condition by its performance— the test is the insertion of the word “hereby” into the phrase without disrupting the meaning: “I hereby promise”. . . “I hereby declare” . . . “I hereby christen,” etc. A moment of silence contains no verb, and in my opinion is not a declarative utterance. It does nothing, except sit there looking sexy and allowing you to construct interpretation based on inaction. Tom asked, “Silence isn’t always silent, is it?” No, it isn’t. The declarations inferred are deafening. But it’s just sex, you know? It isn’t truth. I think the world needs a little truth to go along with the sexiness. But then, I suppose hiding behind silence is an age-old thing.

To Nobodaddy

Why art thou silent and invisible
Father of Jealousy?
Why dost thou hide thyself in clouds
From every searching Eye

Why darkness & obscurity
In all thy words & laws
That none dare eat the fruit but from
The wily serpent's jaws
Or is it because Secrecy
gains females loud applause

William Blake, Rossetti Manuscript (E: 471)

Exploding Head

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Exploding Head

Apologies if the stream of entries sure to follow don’t make much sense to a casual reader. So much has gone through my head in the last two days that if I don’t just spit it out, the headache will never fade, and I won’t be able to get any work done. I have over 800 pages of stuff to read in the next three days on top of all this explosive thinking. I suppose I could blame it on Joe Viscomi, because I got to spend a lot of time with him and it seemed like every other word out of his mouth directly related to the ideas I’m working with. But it’s deeper than that. Viscomi is perhaps the best place to start though.

Memorialize this

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Remembering the WTC

I have intentionally avoided any of the commemorative specials, sappy photo-montages, and historical reconstruction going on. I like to think in broader strokes, and when disasters are replayed as if they are somehow more important to historical consciousness than the day-to-day affairs before or after, I’m singularly unimpressed. What matters is how we learn from history— and this includes the moments before, during, and after.

I think Ray Davis has it right: the best way to commemorate September 11th is by going to work late. Past events can be learned from, and that is the primary lesson here, as I see it. The actions of fanatical folks who have no regard for human life can’t be controlled, and it is folly to believe otherwise. The real pity is that few seem conscious of what happened afterwards. What I remember most is not the image of the towers collapsing, but of the press frantically scrambling to put a spin on things— we must do something! Failing the invention of a time-machine, I can’t think of any way to put the lives disrupted and lost back in order. I’d also vote for turning the media off. Of course, all of this has virtually no impact on what I’m doing.

What I’ll be doing is attending a lecture by renowned Blake scholar Joe Viscomi. He’s one of the guiding hands behind the online Blake Archive, a pioneer scholar in the technical aspects of Blake’s printmaking processes, and from what I hear an all around great guy. I would not miss it for the world. I refuse to light a candle for the media’s benefit. I refuse to support the rebirth of American imperialism under the guise of celebrating such a heinous crime. I don’t want to be spun. I’d rather be enlightened.

The tide of wartime rhetoric has washed the world in blood again. I’d rather try to figure out more about William Blake’s rhetoric— Blake argued that we must stop corporeal war by elevating mental fight to the center of the agenda. We’ve got to stop creating enemies to demonize and lash out against physically, and deal instead with the mental conflicts at the core of it all. Why is it so hard to love one another? Maybe it’s because we’re constantly creating “others” to rage against to avoid raging against ourselves.

The American Evasion of Philosophy

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The American Evasion of Philosophy

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism by Cornel West has been on my list for a little while.

This book was frequently cited in Reason to Believe. Since the pragmatic point of view seems instrumental to the evolution of heroes in the American consciousness, and I will have to deal with many issues regarding race or ethnicity in the photographic representations of heroes, I suspect detailed notes on West’s take on Emerson will be helpful. Not to mention other figures like John Dewey, who clearly shaped the flavor of didactic practice in America.

It is an interdisciplinary study which encompasses Emerson, Dewey, Du Bois, Trilling, Quine, Rorty, Hook, Mills, and a few others. I've failed in my mission to finish it within a week, so I've had to reposition the entry.

I find the writing style incredibly lucid and not bombastic or propagandistic. West seems very sensitive to the complexity of Emerson’s position, and the nature of the shifts in perspective over time.

Intro — 8/30
Chapter 1 — 8/31
Chapter 2 — 9/1
Chapter 3 — 9/6-9

The introduction is polemic, as one might expect. But it’s a polemic I largely agree with. The first chapter deals with Emerson, with glancing references to Karl Marx and Andrew Jackson. Chapter two deals with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Chapter three goes into great depth regarding John Dewey (finally finished!).

more to come later

Hepzibah

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Hepzibah

I have been s-l-o-w-l-y working my way through Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Not because it’s a difficult book, far from it, but because I see in it a deep allegory about the American character. I took another pause today, to look up some critical articles. In an article from The Explicator (Winter 2002), Max Loges traces the roots of the name of a major character, Hepzibah. The story arc of Hawthorne’s novel is amazingly parallel to Isaiah 62. What blows me away about it is that this passage, coincidentally, connects with one of William Blake’s major concepts: Beulah.

For Blake, Beulah was the land of dreams where men could mingle with angels. Beulah, in Isaiah 62, is where Hepzibah dwells. Of course, where Hepzibah dwells in Hawthorne’s novel is a ruined house, run down and falling apart, where a descendent of a proud line is forced to turn to commerce to survive. Not much of a dream, really— more like a nightmare. However, in the time-frame of the passage from Isaiah, where Hepzibah hears this prophecy of the married-land where she will dwell, she is in the desolate ruins of a city. This context adds depth to both Blake’s usage, and Hawthorne’s. Both Hepzibah and her brother Clifford were spurned by the people of the town initially, though they are vindicated in the end. What stands out to me most is the conflict that Clifford feels when considering, in his own demented way, the price of society gazing at an organ-grinder’s monkey from his window:

The spectator feels it to be fool’s play, when he can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.

In order to become majestic, it should be viewed from some vantage point, as it rolls its slow and long array through the centre of a wide plain, or the stateliest public square of a city; for then, by its remoteness, it melts all the petty personalities, of which it is made up, into one broad mass of existence,— one great life— , — one collected body of mankind, with a vast, homogeneous spirit animating it. But, on the other hand, an impressible person, standing alone over the brink of one of those processions, should behold it, not in its atoms, but in its aggregate,— as a mighty river of life, massive in its tide, and black with mystery, and, out of its depths, calling to the kindred depth within him,— then the contiguity would add to the effect.

It might fascinate him that he would hardly be restrained from plunging into the surging stream of human sympathies. (154)

There are many ways to read this passage. Crazy Clifford was thinking of jumping out the window; Hawthorne himself jumped into the utopian experiment at Brook Farm and was the worse for it. It could be a reflection on individuality vs. society. Yet again, it professes an interesting point of view toward representation— it might be best to view things from a distance, rather than in its atoms, because looking too closely, things fall apart. Looking at things from the long-view is always more seductive, and hopeful. Even for a depressive like Hawthorne, there is a sense of hope in the parallel with the arc of Jerusalem in Isaiah.

Long Day

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Long Day

I haven’t done a 6am to 9pm day in a while. But I’ve successfully survived it. Yesterday, my brain was just too confused and ill to write. A lot of the blogs I read seem to be lapsing as new semesters gear up. If anything, there will probably be more activity around here, since I seem to write best in this public format. I like it. Apologies in advance for any upcoming academic tedium, but I think I’ve orchestrated a project in which all of my academic interests converge in one way or another. I’ve got a wealth of resources to digest, and I’m sure I’ll do it here.

Dr. Barb turned me onto an excellent article in TCQ on William Henry Jackson and the rhetoric of the land survey photographs of 1860-1890. The articles on Edwin Rosskam have arrived as well, with extensive bibliographic notes to track down. My conference with Dr. Levernier pointed me toward reading some WEB Du Bois, to track down the rhetoric of the “talented tenth.” Conversations with Dr. Yoder suggested that William Blake may actually figure in some abolitionist rhetoric, through his “black boy” poems. He told me that he’d be talking to a friend who is a Byronist that may help me out in figuring out the American reaction a little better.

In my document design class, I may have the option of doing a presentation on the evolution of the twentieth century photographic book. Now that would be fun. Another thing that may come of that, is a web page which traces some of the major developments in visual form. Because of the lack of well-formed bibliographic essays on the web, I may actually write one to use in my composition classes. I think I’ll do a survey of the books from 1937-41. Maybe doing just a blank summary in plain language will do me good too.

While updates around here may come in fits and jerks, they will still be happening. It saddens me to see so many great blogs going on hiatus, but I really do understand the pressure and burnout involved. I guess it’s because I don’t have much of an audience that I feel so comfortable spilling whatever crap flows into my head.

Skin and Bones

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Skin and Bones

I was really blocked-up last night, after two full days of presentations. It’s taken a while for things to sort themselves out. Too many ideas at once, I guess. Not to mention the rising conflict in me regarding my future degree track— I’ve got at least four years invested in British literature, and now I find myself increasingly interested in American lit, or more precisely, American cultural studies. I heard something yesterday that helped it make sense.

“Writing is a way of becoming more comfortable in your own skin.” I can’t recall who it was who went down this path. I heard too many smart and talented people speak to keep it all straight. But the thrust was that everyone, to one degree or another is uncomfortable with themselves. Writing raises those things into high relief, and forces us to deal with them— we are impelled into things we can’t resolve.

I’ve never been comfortable with being an “American.” My first conscious memory was seeing John F. Kennedy getting shot over and over on the T.V.. The shooting deaths of students at Kent State University, death at the hands of their own government, when I was twelve years old had a more profound impact. Up to that point, my heroes were mostly American inventors, like Thomas Edison and Robert Hutchings Goddard. Now, I can look back and see that it’s just the same old Horatio Alger trope of dedication and passion paying off— at least the way the biographies for children were written, at any rate. You didn't learn that Edison exploited a lot of people, or that Goddard was ripped off by everyone, including his own government.

Kent State changed all that for me. When I saw the face of the girl kneeling over the body of her friend in Life magazine, I realized for the first time that what was supposed to be my government was killing people who looked just like my older brother and his friends. Gradually my heroes became foreigners— British citizens like William Blake, and émigrés like Hungarian photographer Andre Kertéz or the Swiss transplant Robert Frank. Living through the debacle of Nixon, and especially the ignorant election of Ronald Reagan, while growing up I didn’t see much to be proud of in being “American.” These cultural events and personages, up to and including the latest crop of idiots are really only the “skin” of the national identity. I’m not comfortable with my skin at all. But these flashes of cultural idiocy aren’t the bones.

I was reminded by another adjunct at the conference of a book I read before going back to school— Writing Down the Bones. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in creative writing, but to be fair about it anyone who has read the Beats knows most of the tricks presented in it: reading and writing in unusual places, etc. The book is slammed in many critical articles I’ve read, for it’s emphasis on expressivist practice. But I have to give it a lot of credit, for wanting to reach beneath the surface of the writer’s skin. That skin, is the words they use rather than the thoughts you convey. Most of the teaching exercises I heard focused on the skin first, using examples from literature to convey an idea vividly. “No ideas but in things” sums it up perfectly— no presentation of structure (in postmodern pedagogy, structure=bad). The most universally acclaimed writing prompt in our department is this one:

Now that I can only have ________ in memory . . .

The sample text that is read before this is a memoir that focuses on concrete detail, collected with elaborate vocabulary, to present an image of the Native American writer’s dead grandmother. It’s all skin. I remember when I was given it in my first writing class. It caused me to write something that embarrasses the hell out of me. I remember watching other students break down and cry as they read their papers. A prompt like this forces a student to confront loss, place it into a suitably artful skin, and satisfy the voyeuristic desires of the teacher. It avoids the issue of how to write, focusing on issues of self-disclosure and how to craft compelling images to prove your creativity to the teacher instead. Perfect for a creative writing class, yes— potentially damaging to anyone who wants to learn how to put writing to use in an academic environment, in my opinion. It demonstrates how language can move people, but to what end?

To be fair, all the teachers who use this exercise balance it with other activities that promote learning to structure writing, because like it or not most writing is structured, especially in the academic and business environments. What bothers me most about it is that it makes the “creative” writers in the class feel empowered, and the more common, practical sort of writer feel like crap. That’s the state they’re in when the enter my Comp II classroom. I work hard to give the sense that anyone can put writing to use in their lives, not just those who are “creative.”

But I’ve gone tangential again . . . The crisis regarding American lit vs. British lit has to do with my hatred of most of the American “skin” when compared with its foreign competitors. But I have American bones, and I suppose it’s about time that I owned up to it and tried to figure out how they’re put together. My interest in the practical parts of discourse grows directly from that national identity which I’ve avoided all these years, and I begin to wonder if that might be the reason why writing departments might simultaneously cling to both social constructivism and expressivism, unable to let go of either. I suspect that pragmatism is rejected in American Universities precisely because it is too damn American.

More Notes

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More Connective Notes

Henry Crabbe Robinson’s diary has observations on Thomas Carlyle in 1832. Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry and journeyed to Europe in 1833. He met Carlyle, Walter Savage Landor, Coleridge, and many others. According to Crabbe Robinson, Landor thought that William Blake was the greatest English poet of all time. This makes it remotely possible that Emerson was exposed to Blake’s work, though to my knowledge he never mentioned it. Emerson wrote several reminisces on Carlyle based on his own diaries in English Traits, published in 1856.

Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus was first published serially from November 1833 to August 1834, in Fraser’s Magazine, published privately for an edition of 58. An introduction to an 1899 edition of Emerson’s works noted the “Sartor” characteristics to the writing style of Emerson’s 1833 journal; obviously, Carlyle shared Sartor Resartus with Emerson before it was published. The first public edition of the book was an American one, which included an unaccredited preface by Emerson in 1836. A second American edition followed in 1837, before the first English edition in 1838.

Carlyle’s lectures on Heroes and Hero Worship occurred in 1840. They were issued in book form in 1841, 1842, and 1846. Margaret Fuller praised Carlyle in an 1841 edition of The Dial. Crabbe Robinson has reminisces of Emerson from 1848, from his second visit to Europe. In 1850, Emerson published Representative Men in 1850, coincident with Matthew Brady’s Illustrious Americans. Emerson’s work is based on a series of lectures from 1845-46; Brady began collecting portraits of celebrities in 1844.

Don’t mind me. . . . I just had to write this down before I got confused. . . . I’m reading too many things at once!

From the Bend to Tobacco Road

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“The Bend” by Jacob Riis, 1890.

From The Bend to Tobacco Road

The energetic rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal has its roots in what Theodore Roosevelt labeled as “muckracking.” Publicizing social issues was the primary tool of the progressive reform movements of the early twentieth century, and the camera was drafted into service quickly. Though he cursed journalism, Theodore Roosevelt embraced some of these efforts, particularly the work of Jacob A. Riis. The partnership is significant, because the relationship was reversed in the 1930s, as photographers and writers moved to support the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. By this time, the confluence of technology and social agenda reached new heights. But the use of text and image combined in books promoting social change was pioneered by Riis’s 1890 publication How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

Curtains

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(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

I remember the fateful year I crossed the threshold into becoming the dread being known as the “English Major.”— scare quotes are needed because it is a scary thing for a resolute populist like me. My parents never went to college. Their education came from experience and the public library. Until recently, so did mine. Going back to college after twenty years was a gesture of defeat, or so I thought at the time. That’s okay— I felt pretty defeated by life in general.

There’s a time I recall sitting in my gateway course into the English department that summons deep feelings; it was a time filled with terror and love. I was coerced into taking a William Blake seminar at the same time as the intro class. I’d played with trying to read him for years with limited success and it was scary to step into a senior level class as a rookie. But I loved Blake, and chances were the course would not be repeated before I graduated. Dr. Yoder taught both classes, and he was only slightly older than me and of similarly checkered past. When he stepped out of the class for a week to trade with another instructor, I was forced to deal with a man who wore a suit instead of jeans. Dr. Ramsey always wore a suit even though it was a hundred degrees outside. He taught from the pulpit of high church literature. Ramsey began shoving The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church down our throats. He was relentless in exploring Browning’s obscure imagery and coaxing unsupported opinions which he proceeded to shred, not by offering his opinion, but by asking questions which caused students to conflict themselves with every word they added.

Robert Browning exemplified everything I hated about literature. There was little trace of an authorial presence, and because I based most of my judgments on an intuitive grasp of personalities, I was lost. There was an ostentatious manner in the words spoken by Browning’s despicable protagonists. If this was literature I didn’t want to get it. Dr. Ramsey reeked of intelligence and refinement, of dispassionate enquiry into the “text” — once again, the scare quotes are important to the concept. I was afraid to take a class with Dr. Ramsey until my senior year. I stared blankly at the class curtain hesitant to peek behind it.

Times change.

Blake's Fortunes

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Fortunes of Catherine and William Blake

Sunday August . 1807

My Wife was told by a Spirit to look for her fortune by opening by chance a book which she had in her hand it was Bysshes Art of Poetry. She opend the following

I saw 'em kindle with Desire
While with soft sighs they blew the fire
Saw the approaches of their joy
He growing more fierce & she less coy
Saw how they mingled melting rays
Exchanging Love a thousand ways
Kind was the force on every side
Her new desire she could not hide
Nor would the shepherd be denied
The blessed minute he pursud
Till she transported in his arms
Yields to the Conqueror all her charms
His panting breast to hers now joind
They feast on raptures unconfind
Vast & luxuriant such as prove
The immortality of Love
For who but a Divinity
Could mingle souls to that degree
And melt them into Extasy
Now like the Phoenix both expire
While from the ashes of their fire
Spring up a new & soft desire
Like charmers thrice they did invoke
The God & thrice new Vigor took

BEHN

I was so well pleased with her Luck that I thought I would try my Own & opend the following

As when the winds their airy quarrel try
Justling from every quarter of the Sky
This way & that the Mountain oak they bear
His boughs they shatter & his branches tear
With leaves & falling mast they spread the Ground
The hollow Valleys Eccho [the] to the Sound
Unmovd the royal plant their fury mocks
Or shaken clings more closely to the rocks
For as he shoots his lowring head on high
So deep in earth his fixd foundations lie

DRYDENS VIRGIL

Open a Book

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Open a Book

I was stumbling around the Blake concordance yesterday and found a prose fragment I didn’t remember. Catherine Blake was instructed by a spirit to open a book to tell her fortune. Catherine’s fortune was a rather sexy poem by Aphra Behn. I thought about writing about that, but instead I opened another book. Oddly enough, I saw a photograph of the San Joaquin Valley. I grew up there. I certainly hope that isn’t my fortune. I'm tired of tumbleweeds.

I ended the night there. I had abandoned another post yesterday that ended up being a rant against Ansel Adams. That wasn’t what I intended. I deleted it. I didn't like the direction it was going. I wanted to write about landscape photography and some of the ways it’s changed. Right after I woke up I had a conversation about the same subjects with someone on the phone, and later, I opened up Ansel Adams: An Autobiography to find some commonality with Adams in a letter:

Dear Dorothea

Photography, when it tells the truth, is magnificent. but it can be twisted, deformed, restricted, and compromised more than any other art. Because what is always before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie. While it is true that we get from pictures pretty much what we bring to them in our minds and hearts, we are still restricted by the content and the connotations of an image before us. If the picture is of a clam I don’t think about flamingos! The connotations of much documentary photography are —to me— quite rigid . . . .

I resent being told that certain things have significance; that is for me, as spectator, to discover. I resent being manipulated into a socio-political formula of thought and existence. I resent the implications that unless photography has a socio-political function it is not of value to people at large. I resent the very obvious dislike of elements of beauty; our friend Steichen has always shocked me time and time again by a self-conscious fear of the beautiful. Does he feel that way about painting, about sculpture, architecture, literature, or just plain nature? He does not. I am not afraid of beauty, of poetry, of sentiment. I think it is just as important to bring to people the evidence of beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a document of ugliness, squalor, and despair. . . .

Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life — not just to stress the unfortunate aspects of existence or the tragic / satirical viewpoint of the photographer? There must be . . . .

You happen to be one of the very few who has brought enough deeply human emotion into your work to make it bearable for me. I wish you would try and think of yourself as a fine artist — which you are; that is a damn sight more important to the world than being merely an extension of a sociological movement.

Love,
Ansel

The nature I grew up in was much closer to the Dorothea Lange photograph below, than any Ansel Adams landscape. The photographs displayed in an exhibition called “New Topographics” in 1975 are even closer to nature as I knew it growing up. As William Blake said, “Where Man is Not Nature is Barren.”

Ultimately, that’s where my affinities lie. I wanted to write about that, not pick on poor Ansel. I’m not afraid of beauty; it’s just that my conception of beauty is the polar opposite of Adams. Unlike Walker Evans, I’m not afraid of sentiment. Like Adams, that’s a quality I can celebrate. But unlike Adams, I never found documentary photography rigid— connotation depends on the photographer, not the genre. “Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life . . .” the didactic tone of Adams is quite close to Wordsworth, and that of social documentary photographers. Funny how these things fit together.

Perhaps I’ll return later to the Behn poem, and the photographers Henry Wessel jr., Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and maybe even Ed Ruscha. So many things to write about, so little time.

Awful

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Awful

Meanings change, though the words remain the same. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” not tragic or terrible. Terrible has shifted too. Rather than bad, it also means more precisely “inspiring terror.” Terror, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Moments of terror are sublime moments where the stimulus exceeds our ability to experience it— pushing life beyond the realm of ordinary consciousness. There is an awful and terrible vision to be found even in the mundane. Of course if you claim this, there is the danger you will be pronounced mad, like William Blake:

When the sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty. I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro it & not with it. (VLJ, E: 565-6)

That the words awful and terrible have shifted in this way shows how much that Locke’s view of emotion as opposed to clear thinking has permeated society. That Blake used a guinea as an example of the common view was no mistake. In his time, people chased after money causing the sort of problems crashing down on the US right now, reminding us of our lack of vision. There’s more to vision than valuation; there is also an element of celebration. Is vision a gift? In the 1799 version of The Prelude, Wordsworth thought so.

    The mind of man is fashioned and built up
Even as a strain of music. I believe
That there are spirits which, when they would form
A favored being, from his very dawn
Of infancy do open out the clouds
As the touch of lighting, seeking him
With gentle visitation— quiet powers,
Retired, and seldom recognized, yet kind

Wordsworth and Blake

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Isn’t it Iconic?— William Blake takes on William Wordsworth


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Romantic principles, thought by most survivors of survey courses in English literature to be exemplified by the golden boy Wordsworth, are filled with retraction and contradiction. Iconic principles of romanticism beg to be smashed— they were while the “romantic” poets were writing. Conventional lumping strategies in pedagogy presuppose that the romantic poets had a consistency created through proximity in time. Actually, most of these poets had little in common. Some were at least internally consistent, others weren’t. Wordsworth could have easily been the poster boy for inconsistency and the model for Emerson’s comment. In deep contrast to the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth both expands and undercuts the iconic stricture that personal reflection is the hallmark of poetry in his Preface to Poems from 1815:

THE POWERS requisite for the production of poetry are: first, those of Observation and Description,— i.e. the ability to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves, and with fidelity to describe them, unmodified by any passion or feeling existing in the mind of the describer; whether the things depicted be actually present to the senses, or have a place only in the memory. This power, though indispensable to a Poet, is one which he employs only in submission to necessity, and never for a continuance of time: as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and in a state of subjection to external objects, much in the same way as a translator or engraver ought to be to his original. 2ndly, Sensibility,— which, the more exquisite it is, the wider will be the range of a poet’s perceptions; and the more will he be incited to observe objects, both as they exist in themselves and as re-acted upon by his own mind.
William Blake annotated a copy of Wordsworth’s Poems of 1815. Under those lines in the preface, he wrote: