Entries tagged with “William Blake” from this Public Address 1.0

Belief

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A Classical Forensic Oration

[As I was thinking about writing this, I realized that I have internalized the structure of Cicero’s advice on forensic orations so much that I tend to write most things that way— I thought I’d just go ahead and label the parts in case there are any potential rhetoric students out there.]


Art and Belief

exordium

Christ! A blasphemous expletive, and a typically ironic one as well. Part of what makes an utterance profane is violation of societal norms, and taking the Christian name for human embodiment of God in vain is a perfectly symmetrical case. Christ, in the normal context, is a physical manifestation of belief, belief embodied in flesh. Christ, as an expletive, is a mental conception of disbelief, disbelief with no embodied referent. Belief and disbelief are frequently the axis around which humanity turns.

narratio

Coleridge is often quoted on the subject of belief in an abbreviated manner, transposed wherever a “suspension of disbelief” might be required. The full context of this now cliché phrase is worth revisiting. Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to excite the sympathy of readers, using ordinary life modified by the “colours of imagination”:

In this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads,” in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.
Works of art are indeed shadows of ourselves, and those who work to create them strive to embody and animate them with faith in the species of truth that art represents. People who quote Coleridge seldom complete the sentence— which ends with the constitution of a variety of faith. Skepticism is the destroyer of art. Fighting against skepticism is in some ways an analogous project to that of Jesus Christ, whose mission was to redeem man though acts of faith. Is it any wonder that Western artists would adopt Christ-like stances in relationship to their work?

partitio

No sane human would attempt to model themselves after an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God. However, Christ as “God made flesh” is a more accessible paradigm. Paradoxical qualities attributed to Christ provide a good frame to evaluate the products of would be creators on earth. Art began in ritual practice, and the theological descriptors kenosis and plerosis describe attributes not just of the qualities of art, but the attitude an artist takes regarding self in relationship to “human interest and semblance of truth” that an artist seeks to convey.

confirmatio

Kenotic theology focuses on Christ’s renunciation of his supernatural qualities; he emptied himself of omniscience and omnipresence while incarnate; he became flesh to instill belief in man through becoming man. This is a relatively new outlook on Christ, as is the view that an artist's work is not about who they are, but should instead deal with larger concerns alone. Modern poets who have renounced the importance of their personality or individual selves are in a sense emulating the behavior of Christ by giving up the very qualities that make them human.

In an abstract sense, artists of this type want to be Christ through an artistic ritual of emptying themselves to make room for a conception of the totality of the human condition through kenosis. TS Eliot seems to be the prime example in this case, but it does not take much of a stretch to see the utility of this viewpoint in other art forms, particularly the idea of disinterested documentary non-fiction and photography.

The opposite ritual form, plerosis, emulates more closely the effect of a second coming. It is a ritual of filling, of completing the world in its totality. In a traditional Christian view, man was incomplete and without the gifts of love, compassion, and forgiveness of sin which Christ delivered to us. In a sense, some artists celebrate the gift of Christ by emulating it— filling the world with the greatest gifts of God, which include our capacity for self-consciousness. Shelley's extravagance comes to mind, as does the rhetorical florish of William Blake.

Ultimately, those who try to create do so by engaging in a practice which either models itself on a behavioral perception of an authentic messiah, or simulates the effects of one by aiming at completion and totality. A theological model need not be far fetched, even for artists who do not adhere to the Christian faith. These attributes are a deep structure in the fabric of Western society.

reprehensio

Though these attitudes toward artistic creation are opposite, they are both viable positions for a creator operating in the shadow of a Western Christian paradigm. Perhaps because they are both unattainable absolutes, any effort at maintaining strict boundaries of production is doomed. Any model of intention is always flawed, because the motives for creation are as bountiful as the cultures which form them.

conclusio

However, studying the oscillation between kenotic and plerotic modes of artistic creation— modes of generating a suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment— can provide a way of reconciling how artists “transfer an inner nature” into an outward practice of production by such contradictory means. Art attempts to save what is best in us; the methods of art can tell us much about the motives and the mechanics of constituting belief. Art is messianic when pushed to the extremes, at least in the moment that we have faith.


So, there you have it. A blog entry and an example of Roman rhetoric rolled into one. I don’t teach the Latin names to my students; instead, I call the divisions Introduction, Background, Claim [I don’t believe in thesis statements; it’s a horrible misnomer for the work that this section is supposed to do —partition, division, or claim are better terms], Argument, Refutation, and Conclusion.

The Pledge

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The Pledge

Balanced precipitously on the edge of my mind I was composing something to try to explain why these seemingly multitudinous issues regarding blogging, documentary photography, linking, symbols, identity, narrative, and representation are in essence one problem. But then I watched a movie. The Pledge just blew me away.

It is a trauma narrative. I analyzed a ton of them in a class last semester. The seminar I took on "writing and healing" was far from a "fru-fru" new agey thing. This field of study is small, and the principles behind it brought together years of research I'd been doing on symbol and narrative, as well as decades of real world experience with the problem of representation. To try to express it in few words is impossible; but it is deeply involved in the problem of distance and the nature of the self.

Nicholson, in The Pledge, besides reminding me a great deal (physically) of my oldest brother who died recently, precisely acts out the collapse and compression of self involved with traumatic events when they are denied resolution. The traumatic event becomes a symbol, usually wrapped around an image, which the mind just can't let go of. The funny thing is, literature is often taught the same way, traumatizing students with the endless deferral to symbols. Somewhere about half-way through my deep involvement with William Blake I began to see symbols as the enemy; they compress meaning into hard quantities which obscure more than they reveal. There are books (that I don't recommend) which compress Blake into a veritable dictionary of symbols, completely missing what he was really on about. Blake has far more in common with the eighteenth century writers than he does with the advocates of symbol who followed, "interpreting" him. They imposed a distance to his words that really isn't there. Distance is a complex thing. In order to “heal” a certain distance must be created from the traumatic event; in some ways, symbols are the limit of distanciation, in others, they are the limit of compression.

That's why Weinberger's idea that links (in a symbolic sense) are the ultimate in “otherness” (distance), and Jill's idea that they are the ultimate in barbarity (collapse) can coexist. This is the paradox of the symbol. What comes out in the study of healing narratives is that the degree of distanciation is a key consideration: too much, and it's a strategy of hiding behind mythic enabling, too little, and it doesn't expand the collapsed, traumatized self back into a whole person. The middle ground (and the way I believe Blake is best read) is in the realm of allegory, or narrative.

Allegory was thought to be an inferior form by the Modernists, and was met with conflicted responses by the Romantics (including Blake). When I read “The Rhetoric of Temporality” by Paul De Man, I began to appreciate the difference in distanciation involved. For over three years now, that light bulb has been burning. I've had this intuitive concept in my head that I can't seem to get out that I keep struggling to rationalize. It's sort of like wanting to build a bridge back to the Middle Ages, because it seems like something really important and vital has been lost. The control of displacement. What is unique about Walker Evans, and the reason why I sort of elected to spend my summer trying to understand what he was up to better, is that he faced the same problem of distance without resorting to symbol. He did not resort to narrative either, and so is completely anomalous; there is no literary model which describes Evans' approach to representation.

So, there is a handful of words that attempt to impress a logic on what I have been writing about. I think it is incredibly important to tease out the fine distinctions in approach. But ultimately, it's just a gut feeling that I've been operating on for several years; being an ENFP, I'm trying to backwards engineer a rationale behind this overwhelming feeling that symbols are not the answer to the problem of representation. Symbols increase complexity without a commensurate gain in expressiveness: symbols don't heal, they wound— all the while seducing us with their power.

Linking as metaphor

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Linking as metaphor

It had been a long time since I read The Rule of Metaphor by Paul Ricoeur. As I picked up my copy last night, I noticed that it was still interspersed with at least twenty bookmarks; it is, in my opinion, one of the most important critical works of the twentieth century. Going through the last group of lectures in I.A. Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, I noticed that the ideas were oddly familiar. No wonder; Richards’ ideas were part of the foundation of Ricoeur’s work.

When I wrote about denotative and connotative properties of links, I was falling back on the terms most popular in tech-writing theory. Richards doesn’t use those words, but instead, tenor and vehicle. Richards’ Philosophy of Rhetoric is more about understanding how metaphor works (to prevent misunderstanding) than any sort of tropological (style and figures) study. The distinctions Richards makes about metaphor were a bit confusing at first, but last night I began to see the power of it, driving me to pick up Ricoeur again.

Using George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in class last semester, it seemed easy to nod in agreement with the idea that the most powerful metaphors are visual; if you can’t picture it, it’s not a good metaphor. Richards attacks the simplistic view of metaphors as “mental pictures” instead suggesting that words are metaphorical when they operate simultaneously at two levels, i.e., “literal” (denotative) and “figurative” (connotative). However, those words do not adequately describe what’s going on either. Think of the word “strong.” You could picture a guy with big arms crushing something, I suppose, but what of “strong light”? You don’t picture sunbeams with muscles on them, whereas used in the form “strong man” you do. When you say someone is “brainy” do you picture a brain? When you say someone is “geeky” do you picture a circus freak that bites the heads off chickens?

Richards’ points about metaphors are multiple: they cannot be removed from context to be evaluated in isolation; they are not always visual; their meaning is constructed by applying selective parts of the other contexts to which they might also be applied. Thus, when we say something is geeky, we are usually applying the marginalized status of the geek, without taking wholesale the entire literal context the word implies. I would suggest, as Weinberger does in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, that link behavior is similar. Weinberger says that collections of links often have only one thing in common: whoever collected them found something of interest on that particular site. What that something is, is certainly a matter for conjecture — not as “expression” but as part of a larger meaning constituted by the site which chose to link them. Taken in isolation, they are not meaningless, but rather are filled with so many different meanings as to make them an unreliable and imperfect indicator of personal expression. But these qualities do make them effective metaphors.

To channel Weinberger again, being “unreliable and imperfect” is part of what the web is all about. It can be embraced as a strength, rather than a weakness. The more I think about it, linking behavior was one of the first things that obsessed me when I first started reading weblogs. I picked the people I wanted to link to carefully; I did my best to avoid any of the “popular” circles. Sort of like going back to high school, it seemed to me. I tried to choose diverse weblogs with little in common with each other, to avoid reading stale repeats of the most popular buzz. I got sucked in by individual writers, not communities.

So what study might be made of my choices? Of the sites I find interesting enough to point to? The bottom line is that outside of the context of my own particular cave, very little. Linking choices are based in complex interactions, shifted by context. What puzzles me about link blogs with no commentary is why, given the absence of a context would I chose to click the link? Many blogs provide snips of the target document, which is quite helpful in determining why I would be interested, in lieu of commentary. Making a choice to follow a writer is an investment, and I find those with no commentary or quotes a total waste of time; hardly a revelation or new form of expression. I might as well read a dictionary arbitrarily. I suspect that there is much to be said for approaching links through Richards' labeling of the effective parts of metaphor.

Rather than denotative or connotative, rather than original idea and borrowed idea, rather than idea and image, Richards labels the parts of metaphor as tenor and vehicle. Ricoeur applauds this choice, because it makes it impossible to confuse the two parts with anything else, or give priority to one over the other. In a certain sense, you might call the target of a link its tenor, filled with overtones and information. The inducement to click it is the vehicle, be it quote, commentary, or context. The two parts work together. Sometimes they work through resemblance, sometimes through dissimilarity. However, what constitutes their effectiveness is that both parts must be present in order for it to qualify as a metaphor.

What is constantly true of links (or metaphors) is that they are externally referent, not internally referent, as building blocks for discourse— except in the case of incredibly skilled writers who build their own metaphorical universes through years of practice at their craft. Gesturing at other sources to clarify a position, make a point, or fuel an expression is a time honored tradition within a text, as are tactics of self-mythologizing word-play in writers like William Blake, who use the entire force of their oeuvre to pack each word with multiple meanings. I suppose that some bloggers are self-referential in this way, pointing to previous posts to clarify the compact concepts they use; but this is the exception, again, rather than the rule. Metaphors only work when within a context, a connection can be made with subtle possibilities of meaning. Otherwise, they might as well be a bag of words. Pick a handful— they’re cheap.

Good and Evil

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Ideas of Good and Evil

W.B. Yeats gathered together some fragmentary poems from Blake’s notebooks for the Modern Library edition of William Blake’s poetry, the same edition that I feel relatively sure is the primary source for most of the early Modern poets’ reading of Blake. It’s a cheap little book, quite gorgeous and pocket sized. I have no doubt that it was found in the pockets of many poets for years to come, including the Beats. What seems really odd to me, is that Yeats felt that these poems were best classified in a section he titled “Ideas of Good and Evil.” It sets the stage for a sort of cascade of misreading, because close reading of most of Blake’s catalogue shows that he felt these binaries were dangerous and non-productive.

To a large extent, that’s what Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about. The perception of what constitutes a heaven, or a hell, is dependent largely on a person’s point of view. But it seems to be a fundamental human characteristic to itemize these things and set them apart in lists, particularly the bad things. It’s an attempt to create a balance sheet for spiritual economics. Blake’s point was that the world is made up of both, and perception depends on who is making the list. The same thing applies to cultural economics.

Well she likes Dinosaur Jr. but she can't tell you why
She says if you like country music, man, you deserve to die
She's got that whacked-out hair, got them second-hand clothes
She's got an itemized list of everything she loathes.

Well she’s so political, so sophisticated
She will swear in court that everything is overrated

“Idiot’s Delight” — Bottle Rockets, Brooklyn Side

These forces are in place in Walker Evan’s work. He became list obsessive; but he wasn’t the first. I found an interesting congruence in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

My ball

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Cross purposes

Using their typical approach of pointing out contentious articles on the web, Arts and Letters Daily has gestured at another piece of academy bashing, You Read Your Book, and I’ll Read Mine.

Despite what your high school English teacher may have told you, literature does not make us or our society better. To be seduced by fiction is to live at cross-purposes with most of the really important things in life.
This of course, really depends on your definition of “the really important things in life.” Personally, I think people are the most important thing in life. They are life. There is nothing more relevant to existing on this planet than the thoughts and feelings of other people who have faced the same problems, and asked the same questions as you have. With a brief gesture at the notion of “social capital,” the bias of the article becomes clear:
What they have in mind is what economists call social capital, which is the trust between people that lets them get along well enough to build businesses and other useful institutions.
Of course I still have Bourdieu fresh in my mind, and was further struck by the discovery this same afternoon that Walker Evans read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (the example that opens the article) in 1930 and loved it. After noticing other people still draw connections between my blog and homo academicus, I feel the need to go off on another one of those historical rants that I indulge in from time to time.

I’m not a conventional “student” or a conventional “teacher” per se. I was shut out of education in the years that Reagan held sway as governor of California. I spent a long time in the business of selling things to people, burning out and ending up in more clerk-type employments. The reason for this being that as Coleridge observed, few things are more important in life than providing “bread and cheese.” But they aren’t the only important things, and I have long felt the compulsion to explore the fields of artistic expression. Maybe I’m just a victim of my “habitus” as Bourdieu would have it, but my own “spiritual economics” has long been at cross-purposes with monetary economics. The value which drew me, like Walker Evans and other artists I admire, was disinterestedness. The importance of this freedom from economic slavery (in my mind, though not in actuality) was what drove me to be almost totally unconcerned with normal notions of suck-cess.

The antithesis of governing principles between “cultural economics” and conventional economics is well explored by Bourdieu, and it explains a lot about my own particular doxa. One of the governing institutions of “cultural capital” is the academy, and the rules and principles are closer, though not identical, with my own. I also have that streak of American transcendentalist in me too, which rebels against homo academicus. So, when all is said and done I must continually assert that though I am now moving from the workaday world of saying “may I help you” (which really means “may I sell you”) to dispensing another form of capital. It’s closer to me, but it’s not me. I don’t know what the hell I am really, but I know that I am neither an uneducated laborer (though I spent most of my life laboring) nor an ivory tower intellectual. I’m just continually searching to find out what works for me, and “cultural capital” has always been more important to me than economic capital. Of course, there is a nice refutatio near the close of the article:

None of this matters if core curriculum classes teach students to question the falsely coherent narrative of intellectual progress that canonical books are said to exemplify, which is what happens in the best of such classes.
I couldn’t picture a better way of describing my state-run university, particularly the American literature people. However, in British lit, the problem is that if you don’t know the canon, you are unable to even begin to understand the literature of the last few centuries.

I get so sick of the bashing of universities, and of the so-called “great books.” It is only in the secondary literature that any sort of “coherence” occurs, and then only for brief historic windows in time. The stocks of writers, and artists, rise and fall based on their coherence to institutional politics, but also cultural capital. The first cultural capital of any importance to me was music; and I don’t buy the now institutional Rolling Stone or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame points of view. Yet I still love music. And I’ll continue to love the books, and works of art, that have use to me, canonical or not. Just because it’s canonical doesn’t mean it’s automatically the enemy. Sometimes they call them great books, because they are great books. But that’s up to each individual reader to decide.

That’s one reason why I find rhetoric as a subject field so attractive. There is no real canon. It’s at once the oldest, and the newest of subjects. What matters most is what works. In my opinion, Cicero, Quintillian, Aristotle, and Plato work as long as they are offered in the correct context. In some ways, these books, as well as other great works of literature have made the world richer and better; their utility is dependent on how they are presented. I think it best to present them as possibilities, not as totems enshrined in wood. Each time I read one of these articles I can only marvel at how crappy the writer’s teachers must have been, to make them hate the forces that formed them so much. The closing sentiment of the article regarding the goal of reading is good, but diffuse:

This process, however, has nothing to do with coming together and everything to do with breaking apart, with figuring out how to live as an independent intellect and a soul loyal to its own needs. Literature takes root in a rich and stubborn particularity, not in some powdery notion of communal uplift.
I think William Blake had it figured out better than that:

I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you to Heavens gate.
Built in Jerusalems wall.

Jerusalem, Plate 77

That’s what reading is for me. It’s not an academic thing, really, it’s just the search for that golden string. And this is just my ball. Sorry, but I do think it is about coming together. It's about joining yourself into history to better see where you are now. Literature works for me, perhaps because I'm working under a screwed sense of economics.

Hawkwind and Longfellow

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Easily distracted

I was tracking down some of the allusions in the “Powhatan’s Daughter” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge when I found another rock rip-off. When I was growing up, it would have been a great help if rock and roll albums came with bibliographies. I discovered on my own that Jim Morrison ripped off whole songs from William Blake, but now I find another one of the ghosts from my past is also appropriated poetry.

It seems normal that American bands would rip-off English poets, but English bands ripping off American poets? Buried in Hawkwind’s spaced out album Warrior on the Edge of Time is a stanza of Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life. Now that’s just plain weird.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time

AH! SUN-FLOWER

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Beating off with the beats...

Psalm IV

Now I’ll record my secret vision, impossible sight at the face of God.
It was no dream, I lay broad waking on a fabulous couch in Harlem
having masturbated for no love, and read half naked an open book of Blake on my lap
Lo & behold! I was thoughtless and turned a page and gazed on the living Sun-flower
and heard a voice, it was Blake’s, reciting in earthly measure:
the voice rose out of the page to my secret ear never heard before—
I lifted my eyes to the window, red walls of buildings flashed outside, endless sky sad in Eternity
sunlight gazing on the world, apartments of Harlem standing in the universe—
each brick and cornice stained with intelligence like a vast living face—
the great brain unfolding and brooding in the wilderness!—Now speaking aloud with Blake’s voice—
Love! thou patient presence and bone of the body! Father! thy careful watching and waiting over my soul!
My son! My son! the endless ages have remembered me! My son! My son! Time howled anguish in my ear!
My son! My son! my father wept and held me in his dead arms.

Alan Ginsberg, 1960.

The essential nature of a sunflower is that it always turns toward the light. I’m not too familiar with Ginsberg, but in an odd coincidence I had just purchased his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 a few days before In a Dark Time started to take him on. I bought it mostly for “Kaddish,” which was recommended to me by someone I trust as a tour de force in elegy, a favorite genre of mine. Blake never wrote any elegies. He was constantly looking toward the sun. Blake’s sunflower is a complex thing, weary and yet patient.

AH! SUN-FLOWER

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travelers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794.

I suppose that like Loren, I find much of Ginsberg’s verse to be simplistic and cartoonish, particularly when compared with his self-proclaimed spiritual father, Blake. To compare them isn’t very fair, but it is inevitable. Ginsberg was certainly a child at Blake’s feet, but he knew that.

For a look at a black and white version of the plate which this poem appears on, click here. If you click the symbol in the upper left, they have a variety of audio versions available, including Ginsberg singing it.

Oh, and for the record: Blake was against masturbation. He thought that religion caused it:

In the secret shadows of her chamber, the youth shut up from
The lustful joy, shall forget to generate. & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.
Are not these the places of religion? the rewards of continence?
The self enjoyings of self denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely, that thou seekest solitude,
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 7:5-11

He thought everyone should just have sex instead, because sex is a beautiful thing.

Letter from Felpham

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Excerpt from a letter from Felpham, August 16th 1803.

Dear Sir This perhaps was sufferd to Clear up some doubts & to give opportunity to those whom I doubted to clear themselves of all imputation. If a Man offends me ignorantly & not designedly surely I ought to consider him with favour & affection. Perhaps the simplicity of myself is the origin of all offences committed against me. If I have found this I shall have learned a most valuable thing well worth three years perseverance. I have found it! It is certain! that a too passive manner. inconsistent with my active physiognomy had done me much mischief I must now express to you my conviction that all is come from the spiritual World for Good & not for Evil. Give me your advice in my perilous adventure. burn what I have peevishly written about any friend. I have been very much degraded & injuriously treated. but if it all arise from my own fault I ought to blame myself

O why was I born with a different face
Why was I not born like the rest of my race
When I look each one starts! when I speak I offend
Then I'm silent & passive & lose every Friend

Then my verse I dishonour. My pictures despise
My person degrade & my temper chastise
And the pen is my terror. the pencil my shame
All my Talents I bury, and Dead is my Fame
I am either too low or too highly prizd
When Elate I am Envy'd, When Meek I'm despisd

This is but too just a Picture of my Present state I pray God to keep you & all men from it & to deliver me in his own good time. Pray write to me & tell me how you & your family Enjoy health. My much terrified Wife joins me in love to you & Mrs Butts & all your family. I again take the liberty to beg of you to cause the Enclosd Letter to be deliverd to my Brother & remain

Sincerely & Affectionately Yours
WILLIAM BLAKE

When he composed this letter to Thomas Butts, Blake was about to go on trial for sedition. It’s a peculiar tale. An unruly soldier came into his back yard while he was composing poetry. Blake asked him to leave. He didn’t. So, Blake pushed him down the street, pinning his arms behind his back, back to the tavern where he came from. The soldier, Scofield, conspired with his friend, Mr. Cock (appropriate, no?) to have Blake arrested for sedition.

It was the end of what Blake considered to be his exile to the coast, and he was returning to London to write Jerusalem. Sometimes, I think of Arkansas as my Felpham. I hope they don’t try me for sedition when I try to get out.

Swan song

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Loren considered the swan. Swans can be a complicated symbol.


A detail from plate 11 of Blake's Jerusalem


To labours mighty, with vast strength, with his mighty chains.
In pulsations of time, & extensions of space, like Urns of Beulah
With great labour upon his anvils, & ladles the Ore
He lifted, pouring the clay ground prepar’d with art;
Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems;
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawed at his own tender nerves,

Then Erin came forth from the Furnaces, & all the Daughters of Beulah
Came from the Furnaces, by Los’s mighty power for Jerusalems
Sake: walking up and down among the Spaces of Erin:
And the Sons and Daughters of Los came forth in perfection lovely!
And the Spaces of Erin reached from the starry heights to the starry depth.

William Blake, Jerusalem 11:1-12

There is a lot of speculation why Blake drew a swan with a woman’s body on this plate. I don’t buy most of it. The glosses read as if the swan is dying; the text underneath does not reflect a scene of death, but of birth. This scene is early in the massive poem; Los is labouring at his furnace, attempting to shape the world to match his “system,” striving to instill forgiveness through sympathy, as humanity grows and shapes itself. Erin is of course connected with the revolutionary forces in Ireland at the time Blake was writing; he saw some hope in the growth of revolutionary spirit around the world in his time. But pay close attention to the language used here. Erin walked "up and down through the spaces of Erin," much like Satan in the Book of Job. Is revolution a good thing? There seems to be a subtext of mixed feelings throughout the opening of Jerusalem, a subtle shift from Blake's earlier revolutionary politics. I feel sure that Yeats meditated deeply about this plate, as he did about most of Blake’s work, and saw in this a justification for re-writing Blake’s biography to make him an Irishman.

I feel reasonably certain that Yeats connected this plate with Leda, as I do myself. Leda was raped by Zeus. Leda had four children. two human, and two half-god. All twins, sprung from two contrary eggs. The children were born of rape. Some Blake commentators have remarked that the sad image is at odds with the happy scene of the plate, others have insisted that the swan is actually happy. I think Yeats, more than anyone else, has a real sense of what is going on here. Dr. Murphy, in his inimitable way, saw this legend as one of the primary ingredients that Yeats incorporated into his complex system of gyres, contraries and negations spinning against each other creating all of human history. A great and complex history was borne from this point, how could anyone know of the tragedies that would follow?

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow:the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

WB Yeats

Leda’s children were Clytemnestra, Helen and Castor and Pollux. Obviously, Helen could be considered responsible for the Trojan war, and the root of the problem of war on the planet might be traced to the rape of Leda. I think the question Yeats asks is a good one. Did Leda know what this rape would bring? The image of the swan, through this allegory (not through symbolic interpretation) is rich with its associations to violence, war, and revolution. It’s a bittersweet moment, indeed. Brother against brother, we struggle.

The allegory holds strong to the present day, and even shows up in a song by Dinosaur Jr. The swan, for me, will always be connected with the story of Leda. We can’t seem to get past the rape, and the wars that still follow this loss of innocence.

Forget the swan

It's floating through the abyss
Under the brig my head swings down

Beware her wrath, the image gone
The Shell is crumbling, fix my frown
This spell would be clear in non-tradition
And stepping on these pieces of pain and smirk
And rape goes through to sin my eyes
And shapes know where the heartache will lurk

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Drifting among this rubble
I guess the waiting, wished I would
I found a box, untethered and true
Possession it understood

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

How I tried to warn my neighbor
But the corn was much too high
In confusion up and threw him, woke up every day
But it's not too late brother, I'll still say you were mine

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Forget the swan, the dreams are gone
The pain goes on, they fly at dawn

Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Same scene, three writers. Go figure. Some legends don't want to die. Collapsing the richness of the story into a hard and fast symbol denies its complexity. Is humanity a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it's complicated.

Oh, and on a final note, versions of the legend differ. In some versions, it wasn't a swan and Leda, but instead a goose and Nemesis. Loren's connection has more weight than just idle conjecture about birds. It's not that "swan" means something special, it's the story that lies behind it. It could just as easily be a goose. And as both Blake and Yeats conjecture, it's also possible that after the rape Gods and humans might share each others characteristics, as Blake has so aptly drawn.

After all, as Blake wrote in one of his earliest tractates: "God becomes as we are, / that we may be as he is."

Heaven

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Up before dawn

I never get up this early, but I did today. The first thing I read bothered me, and the second even more. Thomas Wright’s What’s for afters? is typical of the sort of ill-informed comments often tossed about regarding Blake:

My personal favourite is the Swedenborg-inspired heaven of William Blake. Only those capable of appreciating beauty are allowed into this dome of pleasure, Puritans and ascetics being unworthy of its splendours and the marvellous conversation of the angels.
Utter rubbish. Blake saw the afterlife as “going from one room into another,” and the gates of paradise as open to anyone who could forgive. Heaven was filled with argument, “mental fight” where people continued with the same force of will to impress themselves upon others. Blake didn’t suffer fools lightly, and some of his conjectures are quite humorous. It’s possible to be a learned fool, as he so amply expressed in his Descriptive Catalogue:
The Learned, who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning, appear to Children like dead horses, when repelled by the celestial spheres. The works of this visionary are well worthy the attention of Painters and Poets; they are foundations for grand things; the reason they have not been more attended to, is, because corporeal demons have gained a predominance; who the leaders of these are, will be shewn below. Unworthy Men who gain fame among Men, continue to govern mankind after death, and in their spiritual bodies, oppose the spirits of those, who worthily are famous; and as Swedenborg observes, by entering into disease and excrement, drunkenness and concupiscence, they possess themselves of the bodies of mortal men, and shut the doors of mind and of thought, by placing Learning above Inspiration, O Artist! you may disbelieve all this, but it shall be at your own peril.
One of Blake’s greatest heroes, Milton, was a Puritan. The young Blake railed against asceticism, but the old Blake railed against learning without inspiration. Dome of pleasure? That was Shelley's vision of heaven for Adonais, his elegy for Keats. It has nothing to do with Blake. Blake saw life in Heaven as struggle, just as life on earth is, though we do gain freedom from corporeal war there.

In Blake’s day, as in our own, “unworthy men” rule by shutting off the minds of humanity through hollow rhetoric; it isn’t learning that is the answer, but belief. Belief that there are great things, visionary spirits who have left a legacy worthy of study, belief in grand things. Heaven exists primarily through the active process of creating it each day. It isn’t a club that only a few can join, and I resent the implication that “only those who appreciate beauty” are allowed. Blake never said anything even remotely resembling that. Even of one of his worst detractors, Dr. Trusler, Blake offered a sarcastic apology: “I am terribly sorry you have fallen out with the spiritual world...”

It’s all about the inspiration, breathing in the world and expelling it tainted with our own feelings and thoughts. It becomes a thick space, when all the complexities of life draw in, as he said in his Public Address

Resentment for Personal Injuries has had some share in this Public Address But Love to My Art & Zeal for my Country a much Greater.
I would adopt his disclaimer for my own version of this Public Address.

WWWBD?

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WWWBD?

I was thinking about how much he permeates my consciousness today. The response from Dr. Kleine regarding my hypertext essay included, in part, “If William Blake were alive today, do you think he’d be doing what you’re doing?” I suppose in my imaginary construction of him, I believe he would. This whole space of mine owes a debt to him, the title of this blog, for example, comes from him. I was trying to think what sort of “simple” explanation I might offer, regarding this rather complex man, as to why I think of him as my greatest teacher.

Blake was unashamed. He said what was on his mind, forcefully, and without hesitation even when he was wrong. And he paid the consequences.

I was reading Dispatches by Michael Herr yesterday, and I ran across a slight reference that’s still ringing. It was in the form of an observation about the “spooks” behind the Vietnam War, specifically Robert “Blowtorch” Komer.

If William Blake had “reported” to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Komer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation.
The famous incident related by Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, was this:
On Peckham Rye (by Dulwich Hill) it is, as he will in after years relate, that while quite a child, of eight or ten perhaps, he has his “first vision.” Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars. Returned home he relates the incident, and only through his mother’s intercession escapes a thrashing from his honest father, for telling a lie.
It isn’t the fact that he saw visions that is the key part here, it is Blake’s insistence on telling everyone about it. He was willing to take the heat. I think he saw scientific rationalization as the agent-orange poised to defoliate the human consciousness; there are mysteries to life, mysteries that can’t be explained away through the three-fold vision of the senses.

That’s where I always reach my impasse. Rhetoric is, by its essential nature, a threefold vision. There’s so much more to say here, and another paper is coming together. I think I’m getting to the core of it, by asking myself what would Blake do?

I don’t want to do what Yeats did. He kept it to himself.

In his Autobiography Yeats constructs an account of hearing spirit voices, much like the story Gilchrist told about Blake. In Yeats’s case, he is afraid to tell people he’s heard them: “I had some wretched days until being alone with one of my aunts I heard a whisper in my ear, ‘What a tease you are!”

Mysteries exist to be told, not to be kept to oneself. That’s what drives me to write I suppose, I listen to those internal voices of thought and spill them out over the side for anyone to hear.

Even if it means that some can’t resist the urge to defoliate my trees.


Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.

Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again--
So I piped, he wept to hear.

Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear

Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read--
So he vanish'd from my sight.
And I pluck'd a hollow reed.

And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

William Blake, Introduction to The Songs of Innocence

Interrupting

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Interrupting the relation of belonging
What we have called “belonging” is nothing other than the adherence to this historical lived experience, what Hegel calls the “substance” of moral life. The “lived experience” of phenomenology corresponds, on the side of hermeneutics, to the consciousness exposed to historical efficacy. Hence, hermeneutical distanciation is to belonging as, in phenomenology, the epoché is to lived experience. Hermeneutics similarly begins when, not content to belong to transmitted tradition, we interrupt the relation of belonging in order to signify it.

I took a detour. That happens to me a lot. It brought back a memory. I remember when I first started studying literature. My point of entry was William Blake. Growing up, he seemed so dense, so impenetrable, and yet so compelling. I wanted to understand what he was on about. I remember well the feeling of drowning, positioning myself at the genesis of the Romantic period in literature. I commented to the Medievalist on campus, after having read “The Wanderer” just how lost I felt. It seemed like there was an ocean of literature stretching both directions from the period that interested me, and I didn’t know what to do, other than jump in and see if I could swim. She answered that this was all that any of us can do.

I thought about how that relates to where I find myself now. I can’t buy goal oriented models for a very simple reason. Things never start at the beginning, and they only “end” when we insist on a false sense of historical closure. It’s a waste of time, things just don’t work that way. We always are swept up, somewhere in the middle, and in order to find out where we are we have to stop, imply a false closure, and fix our relation to the moment. But then the moment becomes lost, as we find ourselves engulfed in yet another sea of meaning.

I started reading From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II by Paul Ricoeur. I’m a philosophical neophyte. Sure, I’ve dug into a few— Locke, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, etc., but only as they relate to very specific issues. I’m still struggling with that big picture of philosophical history the same way I struggled with literary history. But I’m starting to swim a little. Tentative strokes, mind you, but strokes nonetheless. I’m drawn to Habermas, Gadamer, Ricoeur, etc., rather than the rest of the crowd. But I’m wandering in the desert, trying to make sense of it.

I’m drawn to this concept of distanciation. It makes me think about the problems that a writer has when they think too much about their audience, and reminds me of what I thought of as my task as a documentary photographer. You can’t make sense of things if you are too close. There has to be some distance involved. Distance seems imperative in this process of making meaning. But distance is the hardest quality to achieve, when you find yourself thrust in the middle of an ocean of possibilities.

Knowledge and Power

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For the curious.

Because I often talk about what I do in the classroom, I thought I might as well provide some of the material I’m using for those who have an interest in approaches to writing. I’ve read dozens of times on the web that modern thinking about “style” can be separated between the poles of Derrida (or fill in the postmodernist of your choice) and Orwell. Just what does that mean? An Orwellian might say that you can look at writing like a game where he who is the most obtuse, wins. Or you can work for clarity. However, the counter-argument is that language is rich and that limiting oneself to the “plain-style” is ludicrous. A postmodernist wants to revel in the language game.

I chose to teach the Orwell essay that this distinction is derived from for several reasons. First, it follows fairly closely the model of the essay put forward by Cicero (which I also taught), and because it is controversial enough to make people have to think about it. Secondly, the majority of teachers in other subject fields (at the undergraduate level anyway) would hold up the “plain-style” as something close to the model of perfection. Orwell rails against the forces of obscurity in Politics and the English Language.

Written in 1946, this essay tears into the structure of hollow political and academic rhetoric. I’ve been thinking it a lot since our country declared war on a feeling. A “war on terror?” I mean, what the hell is that? It doesn’t get much more obscurantist. This morning, I was thinking about the whole “axis of evil” thing too. Lets see, in order to make the “Johnny goes marching off to war” thing symmetrical, we’ve got to imply an alliance analogous to the Japan/Germany axis by dragging North Korea into the front row. These phrases are the embodiment of what Orwell terms “dying metaphors,” metaphors so tired that they have completely lost their meaning. So I thought Orwell’s essay was appropriate, timely, and concise when it comes to representing the almost Lockean view that we should “say what we mean.”

Okay, but I needed a counterpoint. I wanted to show that language that uses some of the things that Orwell rails against can be effective too. I also wanted to differentiate creative writing from writing good non-fiction essays. So, I chose an essay that changed my outlook toward literature early on: Thomas DeQuincey’s Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power.

That essay, sadly, wasn’t to be found anywhere on the Internet. Well, it’s there now. I scanned it and OCR’d it for the class, so now I’ve turned it into a web document. For people unaccustomed to 19th century prose, it is a bit dense. But that was the point. DeQuincey’s style is anything but plain, and yet it is still concisely defined and argued. And the issues he raises are still important today, particularly for a freshman student who might wonder just what the hell literature is, and what good it does. I raised eyebrows in the department with this one, certainly, because it isn’t my job to teach literature.

However, this is a non-fiction expository essay which strongly argues the value of literature. But it does so much more than that. First, DeQuincey expands literature to the realm of sermons, speeches, theater, etc. Just because it isn’t in a book doesn’t mean it isn’t literature. The same tools with which we approach the analysis of writing can be used in any form of discourse. I think that the distinction that DeQuincey makes in this short piece is easily transferred into life. The division of literatures is pragmatic; the primary difference is the work accomplished by the discourse.

The function of the “Literature of Knowledge” is to teach. The function of what we most commonly think of as literature, “Literature of Power” is to move. It’s the wind in the sails of humanity. Without it, we have nothing to move us along. However, I found myself arguing against some of DeQuincey’s points in class today, right along with my students. “Hey, I learn things from the novels I read . . .” etc.

A perfect case is found in his example of Paradise Lost. DeQuincey asserts that a person who reads Milton’s epic learns nothing. I asked the class the obvious question: “What did Eve eat in the garden of Eden?” The answer, which most people would jump at is: “An apple.” That’s not in the Bible; the bible just says that it’s a fruit. The apple comes from Paradise Lost. People who have never read the poem quote facts from it, filtered through its centuries of influence. I think the class was quite thrilled when I explained why Milton made the fruit an apple instead of a kiwi or a banana. It’s a Latin pun. Apple is mal in Latin, and it also means bad. But the distinction between “fact” and “fiction” is a blurry one, and it’s a distinction I’m trying to get them to make in their essays.

So that’s where I’ve been the last few days. I can’t teach literature, but I can preach it just a little. I do believe that there are answers to be found there, although it contains little in the way of “facts.”

Which brings me to Loren’s lament today, regarding commentary on On the Road:

Unfortunately when Diane and I wrote our analysis of the book, some people were upset because we missed the point of the work. NO. We DIDN’T miss the point of the novel. I knew we had missed the meaning Kerouac had for many readers, which was why I asked Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness to write about it from his perspective. But Diane and I read the book NOW, and it provides no real answers to the questions WE were trying to answer. For Diane and I, it was just another dead end road.
I didn’t write much about the book, because they covered it quite effectively. Instead, I wrote about the dangers of lumping writers into “generations” and my own response to the book when I was growing up. I was moved by the book when I was in my teens and twenties. That matches DeQuincey’s distinction precisely. However, as I’m now in my 40s, I’m looking for more depth— my questions are different too. But I cannot deny the tremendous influence of it in moving me when I was young. Everybody needs to find what fills their sails, uniquely and differently at every point in age. To say a book didn’t take you where you wanted to go is not to condemn it. There is a big difference.

William Blake went to his grave singing, with a heart filled with joy in the world, and no fear of leaving it. Yeats reflected on the folly of so many fruitless pursuits as he grew older, and yet still seemed to be happy with the quest for spirit that was his life. These are the guys I look to now, the ones who fill my sails just as Kerouac and Burroughs and Vonnegut and others did when I was younger. It’s all power, folks. You just pick what you need at the time. Literature works.

Yes, I did say reading a certain popular novel made me ready for "the icepick in the forehead" yesterday. I edited it out, because it seemed redundant with my other closing line. This phrase, by the way, is a Frank Zappa reference from Joe's Garage. The other rude line about being done was from Lou Reed. I can't help following all sorts of literary texts.

Standards

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Standards

I was sitting on a retaining wall with my legs crossed in a half-lotus reading Écrits when another student walked up to me and said: “you look just like a student!” Of course, not being quick-witted enough, I failed to utter the correct comeback: “Hey, I resemble that remark!”

As I mentioned yesterday, I have a big problem with goal-oriented strategies. If I adopted one, I would have quit being a student last year. I have two shiny degree certificates that arrived in the mail yesterday (I hate ceremony) that are emblazoned with magna cum laude. One of them is in “Professional and Technical Writing,” the second in English literature. If I jumped on the corporate train, I could make far more money with those certificates than I could dream of with the doctorate that everyone is urging me to get. Bah. I’ve got higher standards than that— it has nothing to do with letters after my name or financial success. It's a way of life. I won't be jumping on any trains or issuing any manifestos, because ultimately, I do feel like I have a clue.

Driving home, a different perspective on the argument I made yesterday occurred to me. Dr. Yoder once simplified the debate between John Locke and William Blake to me in this way:

Blake’s standard of measure was Genius.

Locke’s standard was mediocrity.
That says it much better than I did yesterday. I choose Blake as a model of effectiveness rather than Locke.

It’s a completely different perspective. Rather than saying that things are better or worse than the norm, why not measure them against the ultimate attainment? Of course, everything suffers by this comparison, and it makes life a quest for higher levels rather than complacent acceptance of a norm.

What I was reading in Lacan yesterday just resonated with me as the ultimate in educational philosophy. I spoke to Dr. Levernier this morning, and in the process realized that his strategy is much the same. In teaching American Literature, he does his best to overcome everyone’s programmed notion of literature. It’s a hard fight, especially for people like me who are steeped in the British tradition. But he did it for me, and I hope that someday, I can do it for other people as effectively as Dr. Levernier. What Lacan proposes in “Function and Field of Speech and Language” is this:

I consider it to be an urgent task to disengage from concepts that are being deadened by routine use the meaning that they regain both from a re-examination of their history and from a reflection on their subjective foundations.

That, no doubt, is the teacher’s prime function — the function from which all others proceed, and the one in which the price of experience is best inscribed.

If this function is neglected, meaning is obscured in an action whose effects are entirely dependent on meaning, and the rules of psychoanalytic technique, being reduced to mere recipes, rob the analytic experience of any status as knowledge and even of any criterion of reality.

No “seven habits” for me, thank you. That stuff impoverishes the soul. As Blake so aptly puts it, it’s all about the “mental fight.” Which implies a proactive conflict, a constant assault of new knowledge against old. Begin with an end in mind? NEVER!

I prefer Isocrates’ notion of Antidosis, echoed by Shelley in his Defence of Poetry. The flexing of the mental muscles strengthens the mind in the same way that one strengthens the body through exercise. Use your brain, not a recipe. That is, unless you are comfortable with forever reaching for mediocrity.

/soapbox mode off

Spirit of the age

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Spirit of the age

I believe in the worth of history. However, the historical perspective is troublesome because with every telling of the tale we cannot cease our compulsion to rewrite it in our own image, as we are now, or rather, as we would like it to be. Placing writers like Jack Keroauc in the larger context of constructs like “the Beat generation” limits them, but at the same time, illuminates their difference from the arbitrary constructs.

The troublesome concept of “generations” can be traced to the romantic essayist William Hazlitt. In his book The Spirit of the Age, he offers commentary and gross generalizations about his “generation” which are at once contradictory and comforting in their simplicity. For example, in his chapter on Coleridge he proposes:

The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past achievements. The accumulation of past knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height that it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied? What path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do better than all those who have gone before us?
And yet, Hazlitt concedes in his chapter on Byron that:
Lord Byron is dead: he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause of freedom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse and his epitaph!
The Spirit of the Age which Hazlitt seeks to contain includes those who were “talkers not doers” (like Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.), and those who were zealous champions of the cause of freedom and fought in battle (like Byron) or produced revolutionary pamphlets at the risk of their lives (like William Blake, Tom Paine, Percy Shelley, etc). The neat concept of history falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny. It could be argued that it is the process of youth to age which is the real distinction. Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth were all “revolutionary” in their youth and denied the martyrdom of dying young, they become objects of scorn in their old age.

Hazlitt’s case for William Godwin, using Wordsworth as a mouthpiece, points at the problem of perspectives that shift with age:

'Throw aside your books of chemistry,' said Wordsworth to a young man, a student in the Temple, 'and read Godwin on Necessity.' Sad necessity! Fatal reverse! Is truth then so variable? Is it one thing at twenty and another at forty? Is it at a burning heat in 1793, and below zero in 1814? Not so, in the name of manhood and of common sense! Let us pause here a little. Mr. Godwin indulged in extreme opinions, and carried with him all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of the time. What then? Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless? Is the very God of our idolatry all of a sudden to become an abomination and an anathema? Could so many young men of talent, of education, and of principle have been hurried away by what had neither truth nor nature, not one particle of honest feeling nor the least show of reason in it?'

I believe that retrospective critiques of Kerouac and others who sought to break the bounds of the weight of literary tradition, to find the spirit of their age, suffer greatly when examined through the framework they sought to overthrow. Because they sought to break through, however, they must be examined inside that matrix, which has moved on since the time they wrote. Did they capture a spirit, or merely expose their irreverence for the world to see? History is the final judge, jury, and executioner in these matters.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Kerouac’s belief, only the ultimate worth of a lifestyle built on restless movement and above all else, speed. Age tempers these notions: “When I was faster I was always behind,” as Neil Young says, or as the penultimate line in Easy Rider succinctly puts it, perhaps the best reflection of the sixties is: “We blew it.” As my father always said, "Hindsight is 20:20." Longshoremen philosopher Eric Hoffer declares reason why we feel compelled to start moving best: “The best impetus for moving forward is to have something to run away from.” Generalizations of history are good at describing the disenchantment, the "beaten" nature of the beats, and why they took their show on the road. The question addressed and left unanswered by Kerouac is: where do you run when there is no place left to go?

The only thing that remains is to revel in the trip itself. This is great advice when you are young, but age brings reflections on what you have left behind. On the Road cannot be read with that weight held in the mind. A free-flowing, stream of consciousness prose style is perhaps the only real contribution of Kerouac when viewed through the lens of age. However, to sense only that is to miss the spirit of freedom, a freedom from possibility which lies at the core of Kerouac (and perhaps Henry Miller too, from an earlier generation). The labels of Lost Generation or the later Beat Generation are shaky simplifications that don’t really hold up. But it’s the way that history deals with things.

Hazlitt's Wordsworth was astute: “Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless?” Wordsworth's question does not require an answer, for those who read only to revel in the freedom. Literature scholars are bound to attempt an answer, however. And the answer, in Kerouac’s case, is to perhaps just dodge and say that he was not groundless, just unrealized. He has stiff competition from the generations that came before and after when it comes to his worth as a literary figure. But there is no denying his importance as a central figure as a spirit of his age.

I revisited some memories of Keroauc from his close friends in the oral biography Jack’s Book. Alan Ginsberg relates their first meeting with William Burroughs:

So Jack and I made a formal visit to Bill, and I remember that he had copies of Yeats’ A Vision, which Lucien had been carrying around. Shakespeare, Kafka: The Castle or The Trial, The Castle I think; Korzybski’s Science and Santity, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Blake, a copy of Hart Crane, which he gave me and I still have, Rimbaud, Cocteau’s Opium. So those were the books he was reading, and I hadn’t read any of those. And he loaned books to us . . .
Most of these books are on my shelf. It feels kind of weird, thinking that it is a writer’s job to overcome this weight and move the project forward. I think Kerouac and Ginsberg “moved the project forward” a bit, but only just a bit. The idolatry of my youth is gone, and now I look to all books as things I can use, but things I must overcome if I am to move on. I suspect Kerouac felt the same way, though he never seemed to get past the breakthrough phase into the realm of pure vision, in the way that Blake or Yeats did.

Perhaps though, it’s fitting that the spirit of this age be incomplete and unrealized. Perhaps that’s true of all the ages, and only history can find the neat closure that we so fervently crave. I think that the new pluralist trends are a good thing; there is no one spirit of the age, only spirits that we can seek to comprehend.

Yes, I know that Spirit of the Age is a Hawkwind song too. But Hazlitt said it first. Hazlitt's defense of Godwin would be the only sort of defense that I would offer for Kerouac, but this matters little to a young reader who would drink deeply of the speed, the movement, and the joy that is deeply conveyed with its dark side intact, in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Under 25? You must read On the Road. At least, if you have the flame of disenchantment within you. Who doesn't, when they are young?

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

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“Whose Voice is it Anyway?”

Anne Ruggles Gere raises some thorny issues about voice in this article, which occupies chapter 2 of the Writing and Healing anthology edited by my professor, Charles Anderson and Marian MacCurdy. Issues of voice are quite complicated because through voice we express ourselves in ways that are shaped by our perception of self.

Gere opens the article by telling a story about her experience trying out to be a cheerleader in the seventh grade. She worked hard to make the squad but failed, because as she was told, “Your voice just isn’t loud enough.” I’ve never been told that, quite the opposite actually: I’ve often been told my voice is too loud. In retrospect, perhaps that’s why I felt more comfortable retreating into the silence of photographs. Every time I spoke, I felt as if I was dominating things. People often look at me like some kind of “leader” merely because I have little trouble speaking up. But I try not to. I choke back more words than I speak. My words just flow in torrents any time I open up the gate. I suppose I was trying to fix that by becoming a photographer. When I make photographs, I seldom speak. In fact, I find it nearly impossible to speak when my visual centers are working at the peak of their capacity. Through photography, I was looking for a quieter and more eloquent voice, a voice that wouldn’t make other people become silent: a voice that would encourage people to talk to me, rather than be silent.

Writing has shifted and modified my view of self, because I became more conscious of the games that people play when they express themselves. Everyone does it; they bend their voice to fit the situation, to try to find some common ground where connections might be formed. I really like Gere’s take on the opposite side of the coin:

Being told that my voice was too soft had as much influence on my understanding of the concept as anything I’ve read in professional journals. The term we use most frequently to describe voice— authentic— takes on meaning when we connect that word “authentic” with our own lives. Feeling inadequate or not powerful enough shapes one’s understanding of voice just as feeling important and in control does. Connecting to one’s life does not, however, mean continuing to think of voice in individual terms. Many of our current discussions about voice presume a stable, coherent self while our conversations about other aspects of composition take for granted a more complicated and less unified concept of self we call “the writer.” In wanting to be a cheerleader, I sought to join other voices, and I believe that the finely textured personal and autobiographical writing now emerging in the academy leads us to public and social contexts rather than private and individualistic ones.

This was just so incredibly well put and relevant to the questions of voice in blogging that I had to put it out there. Voice is a multivalent quality. It isn’t just “being true to yourself” it is also seeking to connect with communities of voices. The most important pole to steer by, as far as I’m concerned, is a sense that the voice we speak is connected in some way with the conglomerate self that we hold close. It isn’t a fixed thing, it shifts dependent on the situation in which we express it.

The questions that I find interesting are not “what is voice?” or “what is authentic?” but instead, how has the open sharing of ideas and personalities in the first truly global environment, the Internet, leveled or shifted the playing field when it comes to forging those connections which language (and/or self) drives us to seek.

Voice and authenticity are much larger things than the presence of personalities on the Internet. Blogging presents these qualities in a new context, with new depth and complexity. The interrogation going on, at least the parts that I’ve read, don’t do more than scratch the surface of the differences involved, focusing only on the similarities to the larger questions. What’s so different about blogging? I’m still not sure. I haven’t really isolated any good specific rather than general questions to ask. Hyperlinking pops up from time to time as one of those differences, and yet hyperlinking is just the latest twist on “intertextuality” which is also one of those deep and abiding questions about the nature of discourse. The Internet didn’t invent intertexuality; it has only accelerated it. However, it is possible that it has strengthened the ability to claim validity, by linking to supporting or dissenting positions, accelerating judgment.

So, is this blogging stuff just another manifestation for our need for speed? Or, is it deeper— reaching out to find some language, some voice that can be used to touch people beyond ourselves? I agree with Gere. Voice and authenticity are much bigger than just the act of inflicting our selves on each other.

That, by the way, was William Blake’s definition of friendship:

We impose upon each other.

Many blog writers I’ve known over the last few years cite friendship as a primary motivation. To make friends, because a person can never have enough friends.

Not

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Not

Reading Kenneth Burke’s “Definition of Man” resurrected some weird thoughts. He placed a big emphasis on the importance of man’s negative approach to morality: Thou shalt not. However, not is a complex operator. We separate existence by declaring this not that. It’s a gesture of definition; things are divided into named quantities, defined more by what they are not rather than what they are. Unable to establish authority to declare what something is, we reach to define by surrounding it, rather than embracing it. Somehow, this becomes refined into binary negations, which if combined, cancel each other. The picture becomes clearer. Just add it up: if a is not b, and these two quantities cancel each other, then they are opposites. But this is a special case, not the norm, in the land of not.

Dialectic operates on the principle of canceling the oppositions to simplify things. If a is in conflict with b and a is true, then b must be false and discarded, because only one proposition can be true. There is no room for relative levels of true, in the land of not. If a quantity is judged “good” and other things are not like it, then they must be the negation, or “bad.” This is physis. A thing cannot be both what it is, and what it is not. The foundation of this is in the literate creation, the verb to be. But are all questions, particularly moral ones, assertions of being true or false? Sometimes, things just are. Outside the question of right and wrong, there is the purely relative realm of story.

I am beginning to see a large connection between story and sermon. Richard Weaver, in his article “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric” asserts that dialectic “fails to see that language is sermonic.” By substituting an ideal realm of abstract “gods” like truth or deity, it breeds a sort of agnosticism that seeks to break ties with any sort of belief in the truth of culture as a whole, or nomos. It sets up abstract texts, whether they be religious or theoretic, as a measurement of value that sidesteps the question of value itself. It creates a closed system of truth, where everything outside is by definition not truth. This circling of the wagons of culture to exclude culture as a standard in and of itself is dangerous. I like the way he puts it:

This brings us to the necessity of concluding that upholders of mere dialectic, whether they appear in this modern form or another, are among the most subversive enemies of society and culture. They are attacking an ultimate source of cohesion in the interest of a doctrine which can issue only in nullity. It is of no service to man to impugn his feeling about the world qua feeling. Feeling is the source of that healthful tension between man and what is— both objectively and subjectively. If man could be brought to believe that all feeling about the world is wrong, there would be nothing for him but collapse.

The hazards of dialectic reductionism are also neatly expressed by Kenneth Burke by reworking an old nursery rhyme:

If all the thermo-nuclear warheads
Were one thermo-nuclear warhead
What a great thermo-nuclear warhead that would be.

If all the intercontinental ballistic missiles
Were one intercontinental ballistic missile
What a great intercontinental ballistic missile that would be.

If all the military men
Were one military man
What a great military man that would be.

And if all the land masses
Were one land mass
What a great land mass that would be.

And if the great military man
Took the great thermo-nuclear warhead
And put it into the great intercontinental ballistic missile
And dropped it on the great land mass,

What great PROGRESS that would be!

It’s a sticky mess. The coherence of popular opinion creates culture. However, it is constantly assailed as a standard, particularly by those who would call upon an external agency to stabilize a particular position. However, it can’t be excluded in the fashion that dialectic seeks to attain. It took a long time for me to realize that the only difference between dialectic and dialogic is that dialectic implies a power relation. However, it seems that the notion of a dialogic approach to knowledge is also doomed by its multiplicity. I don’t trust popular opinion much either. But must these terms be negations? I respect more and more William Blake’s opinion that there are substantial differences between negations and contraries. Both positions seem essential. As Blake puts it, “Without Contraries there is no progression.”

We preach our positions to one another. We choose among available positions to form our own lifestyles. Society cannot exist without nomos. But we are subject to natural laws of physis. The strong do dominate the weak. But there has to be a balance somewhere, and an understanding of what authorizes one position in relationship to the other. We need to figure out how to assign value without exclusion, but more than that we need to know how to choose what to believe. There is no society without belief.

Genius

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Watching a screener copy of A Beautiful Mind a bit of dialogue leapt out at me:
You have no respect for cognitive reverie you know that?

Yes, but pizza, now pizza I have enormous respect for— and of course beer.

I have respect for beer!

Duality

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Synthesis is concerned about dualism.

That charge isn’t an easy one to answer. Some things just can’t be explained any other way. For example, I was reading an article by Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede called “On Distinctions Between Classical and Modern Rhetoric” today. It offers the thesis that in the classical world, the perception of what constitutes necessary or universal truth, or episteme, was fixed and thus, there was a truth that was independent of what we say about it. The function of the rhetor was to convey truth. However, for modern rhetoric:

Connections among thought, language, and reality are thought to be grounded not in an independent, charitable reality but in the nature of the knower instead, and reality is not so much discovered or discoverable but instead constituted by the interplay of thought and language.
So, the next time you burn yourself, or stub your toe, you can tell yourself that it didn’t really happen. You just constituted your reaction based on what you thought would happen. When you close your eyes, the world actually disappears, and all that rubbish. Like it or not, we’ve got to deal with this dualism. There is what we think, and then there is a world that is. Maybe we can’t know it— and negative capability is what we need to get by. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Okay, so if reality is constituted by thought and language, then it is also contingent on our point of view. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” to quote William Blake. It seems not a difficult leap to see that the representation, in pictures or language, of reality is by its very nature iconic, or an idealized view. However, given what we know about the fallacies of the universal, that makes these icons also phantasms, eidolons constructed from moment to moment based on “the interplay of thought and language.” There is really nothing dualistic about something being at once ideal and imaginary; it only becomes Platonic when the real is considered to be imaginary, and the ideal a separate knowable thing.

That’s why Plato expelled poets from his republic. Because they created a competition for the real, by creating imaginary ideals. The concept of eidolons is not Platonic in the slightest. We’re constantly told that truth is an unknowable thing in the postmodern world, that it is constituted from moment to moment through the processes of history. Truth is relative. Ultimately, if this is the case, then philosophy is useless.

The schism between Rhetoric and Philosophy is this: Philosophy deals with absolutes. Rhetoric deals with possibilities. In the grandest sense, postmodern philosophy is not really philosophy but rhetoric. Clear as mud?

How about this, from Michael Polynyi (cited by Lunsford and Ede)

We must inevitably see the universe from a center lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our pictures of the world must lead to absurdity.
This is what language based philosophy, or rhetoric for that matter, are all about. People see some things as ideals, as icons. Icons are always flawed, and phantasmagoric precisely because they aren’t real— they are constituted by consciousness. It’s not a duality. It’s our constitution of reality. Rhetoric wants to understand and shape these icons to its own end. Philosophy wants to take icons apart and see how they work.