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Fitful Dreams

I had such a horrible time sleeping last night. I’m reasonably certain it was the book I was reading: The Matrix of Modernism by Sanford Schwartz. A person likes to feel that they know who their friends are. I’ve made such a career of demonizing Eliot and Pound— and now I find myself sympathetic. I’m so confused.

Russell Murphy, editor of the Yeats Eliot Review recommended it to me years ago. He knew how much I loved Yeats and detested Eliot. I suspect he also knew that this book would strike at my weak spot— philosophy. I’m starting to find things to admire about the well-thought out nature of Pound and Eliot’s philosophical take on representation, and this is hard for me. Even if I still don’t care for their poems, I can’t think of them as total assholes anymore. That sucks. I’ll need new straw men to beat up on.

The other thing that sucks is complicating my view of metaphor right before I need to lecture on it. Gestating in my head is a new way to look at Walker Evans and James Agee— it seems like Evans overlaps a great deal with Pound, philosophically, and Agee overlaps with Eliot in the strangest ways. They form an interesting matrix of representation, which hopefully I can try to write out sometime soon. The world doesn’t really need another treatise on Evans, but the paradoxical nature of Pound and the paradoxical nature of Evans fit too damn well. It warrants at least a mention. Eliot’s “objective correlative” also fits with Agee’s endless inventories of household objects, and tension over his own subjectivity. My head’s a mess just thinking about it.

I’m beginning to narrow the focus of my thesis to captioning practices in the photographic books of the 1930s. It’s a small piece of the larger puzzle which might be more easily completed in the next year. Simply stated, it has to do with how photographs work as units of meaning in the format of the book. Evan’s rejection of the caption has much to do with his ideas of how reality, and photographs should be read. Though other books before Let Us Now Praise Famous Men refrained from captioning, the reason why Evans was resistant to captioning was far different. Strange to find even greater depth and complexity to that choice in a book which explores the theories of Nietzsche, Bergson, Hulme, and William James compared to the poetics of Pound and Eliot, but whatever works I suppose.

I suppose I should get used to having my world view altered radically by books I read every few weeks, but I never do. It’s a shock to the system. Damn, the last thing I really wanted to do is start liking Eliot!

A Milton Flashback

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A Milton Flashback

I was going through some old mail and stumbled on a link to an article in the NY Times decrying teaching Milton’s Samson AgonistesIs Teaching Milton Unsafe at Any Speed? The core argument is that the poem celebrates terrorism, or rather, that Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton accentuates the fundamentalism involved. According to the Times:

Liberals, he [Fish] says, believe in objectivity, disinterested consideration of evidence, procedural safeguards for justice and above all in the primacy of rationality. “Milton,” he argues, “believes none of those things.”

On September 11, 2001 I was preparing my notes for a seminar on Milton on the twelfth. I was supposed to teach “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy. “Lycidas” is a flexing of his poetic muscles that neatly avoids the problem of fame by passing judgment on the worthiness of fame not to men, but to God. Its strategy of deferral is interesting, because Milton compares the fallen poet he laments (who he barely knew) to Orpheus. Though Orpheus could charm a stone through his rhetoric, it still didn’t keep him from being torn apart by the Maenads. I feel sorry for poor Milton.

Presenting an elegy on that day seemed so right. And it is a powerful elegy at that, one of the finest in my opinion. A few weeks later, oddly enough, I presented Samson Agonistes. Thoroughout the poem Milton undercuts Samson for his past deeds, and he is in torment that parallels that of Job. In the end, he tears down the temple based on the voice of the lord that he alone hears. Of course, Milton no doubt chose this subject because he was involved in defending Cromwell, and felt himself in a similarly embattled position. To teach a play that involves such single minded devotion to a God seemed really important in the light of September 11th. Right or wrong, who can really say. I haven’t had any conversations with God lately to judge by. Strike the poem from the canon? It seems as likely that we might neatly snip out the story from the Bible.

Milton consistently defers authority to God. I wonder if that might be the firmest lesson involved. Personally, I can’t see following any god that commands you to slaughter innocents. Obviously, Milton’s God condoned that sort of behavior— and he wasn’t Islamic. Does that mean I ask myself “What would Milton Do” just because I read and love his poems? Now that’s a really stupid question. Milton never claims any authority for himself, only for his God— and it really turned out badly both for him and the innocent victims. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

I was only sitting in on this seminar. I felt like I had missed something in my undergraduate career by not spending more time with Milton. I was glad I did, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. What better way to understand the actions of some outraged fundamentalists than by reading another fundamentalist?

Archie's Letters

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Archie’s Letters

I got distracted this evening looking at some letters by Archibald MacLeish. There’s a letter from February 1930 that I suspect must have been written to Hemingway while he was residing in Piggott, Arkansas:

Dear Pappy:

Thanks for the warning about the mosquitos. Its a damn shame. I had wanted Ada to be near you and Pauline. But I can still take advantage of her father’s generous offer to put her up at Daytona and she’ll have the sun there if she doesn’t have anything else.

Met Dotty Parker Saturday night and think she’s swell. I have always been afraid of her because I thought she was the kind who would be affectionate to you with her right hand and murder you with her left. But she was so fine in talking about the Murphys and you and all her friends and so damn wise and intelligent about people that she took me in about eight minutes. She may be serving me up cold at the minute for all I know but I doubt it and if she is it doesn’t matter anyway . . .

The mosquito is the Arkansas state bird, and Hemingway spent a lot of time shuttling between here and Florida from 1929-32. Nice to hear that “Dotty” Parker is swell too. But that’s not really what I was up to here. I wanted to note a couple of MacLeish’s thoughts on Conquistador for Loren, in case he doesn’t have the letters lying about. In a letter to Robert Linscott in October of 1931, he was stinging over the failure of an earlier book, New Found Land to sell:

. . . I can’t help feeling that had New Found Land appeared in a regular edition and had been pushed it would have sold extremely well. What reviews I saw were favorable & the book was a book of short poems. As a matter of fact, if Hart Crane is not misleading me, the Bridge sold in the same year very very much better. Comparisons are ridiculous but what else is there in the world?

. . . After all, books of verse have been advertised in America— have been pushed. You know & God (if it isn’t an anti-climax) that I loathe blurbs & have no desire to see my name like Edna Millays with “Immortal Poetry” over it. But there are things that a publisher can decently do for a book which a poet can’t do— unless the poet is Amy Lowell & as rich as Amy & as gifted in self-publicizing. And those things H.M. [Houghton Mifflin] have never done for my books. Because you lose money on a book of verse anyway, you will say. But isn’t that a vicious circle?

But this is futile. I certainly can’t, & don’t wish to teach H.M. their business. But I have worked on Conquistador for many years. I believe it is going to be a really good poem— but certainly not a popular one. And I want to see it well treated by a publisher— not just issued with an item in trade paper & allowed to sell itself if it can. . . .

Mentions of Conquistador appear for years before this— MacLeish wrote everyone he knew asking if anyone else had ever done a long poem on the topic. He wanted it to be original. Evidently, Pound criticized it severely (but in good spirits). There’s more to be quoted from there, if I get the time. My favorite phrase about Pound from the letters was: “Pound is a unicorn who turns into an ass every time you look at him too closely.” I was curious about how MacLeish thought of the poem, because it is not nearly as “accessible” as most of his poems. I found the answer in a letter written to his mother, on the occasion of the death of John Hillard— a meditation on death written in February of 1930 which quotes approximately the opening line of Conquistador:

What I must do is step aside into the quiet & think. By thinking one begins to see. It is strange. Only by ceasing to see can I see. Myself I do not love but unless I behold myself once in these windows. I am nothing & never lived & the roar of the wheels will roll over me. Over us all. Over us all. And all that was young & lovely in the world. I am not afraid of death. But I pity it. I pity its silence. I sat for a long time in the vault of poor Harry Crosby. He had shot himself. He lay on a narrow couch under a dark red cloth. He had made a great noise with his death. But already I could hardly see his face. I had to turn back to see him.

I am hurting you with these words. Forgive me. Believe me. I am not what you think. I am an evil person. I take no happiness in anything on earth but the sonorous sounds of certain words. It is a very wrong thing. Poetry is not always in me & sometimes coming out. I go to it as a man goes to what he loves & is ashamed of. I go to it out of my life. I come back ashamed. You do not understand. Do not try to. “How do the winds follow unfortune”— I write that & my heart is smooth. What at all have I written? Well, I am a poet. I do not describe myself by this word. I do not speak it. No one speaks it to me. But I am that thing. And it is agony. It is not wisdom like a quiet light in the brain, nor wisdom in the ankles of the body. It is no wisdom. It is thirst. Only with this wine— And only I can make this liquor. Out of what? Out of— Oh be still, be still. I do not write letters such as this. I am not to speak so. Never answer it.

I once said things much like this when I was working fervently as a photographer. I never felt like it was a good thing either. It just was.

Bristol Library



If anyone should wonder what I’ve been doing today, well, here it is. Exciting, no? I thought it would be interesting to any other bizarre individuals curious about the reading habits of the late eighteenth century.

The History Channel could have made a killing in Bristol at this time. Six of the top ten books were multi-volume histories; of course, the complete works of Fielding and Tristram Shandy were up there too.


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I haven’t read a great many of Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, but something has been bugging me. Perhaps it’s pondering that built within any exertion of power is a comparable resistance. I’m wondering if that’s why the same man could write these lines. While I’m all for sexual power, it really bothers me when it comes in the form of assertions like this:

The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.

Black dress and a silent part   make every woman appear— smart.

If I believe the first assertion, the second (and many others) lead me to believe that this philosopher has a very poor spirit. Rather than a pinnacle, he’s in negative territory and digging to China. Of course, I have to watch myself from going too far in the other direction. I constantly suppress the urge to think that every woman I meet is much smarter than I am. I think it has something to do with the lack of understanding I feel I suffer from; it’s mysterious territory for me. I have discovered that besides whatever rhetorical or artistic skills I might have, I have an uncanny ability to piss women off. If that’s a gift, I’d like to give it back.

However, I am drawn to this passage from Nietzsche. I suspect it is truer than most people would admit. We’re all artists, in an important respect:

Just as little as a reader of today reads all of the individual words (let alone the syllables) on a page— rather he picks about five words at random out of twenty and “guesses” at the meaning that probably belongs to these five words— just as little as we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color, and form; it is very so much easier for us to simply improvise some approximation of a tree. Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of these experience and can scarcely not be forced to contemplate some event as its “inventors.” All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are— accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.

I have absolutely no clue why dressing in black and remaining silent is a prerequisite for women appearing smart to Nietzsche. I read all the words. They still make no sense. Maybe it’s meant to be taken as a lie— I hope so.


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Michael Pollan’s exploration of marijuana in The Botany of Desire is a lot of fun. He talks of the inexplicable pull that toxic substances have over people. The explanation is a bit predictable to me, as a long exponent of Hunter Thompson’s “I can’t say drugs are for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me” attitude. People just seem naturally impelled to change their view of the world, in some form or another, in all cultures. I suspect that the drug of choice has a great deal to do with what we perceive as the essential nature of a culture. Or, as Pollan argues, Marx got it backwards— “opiates are the religion of the people.” What we grow in our gardens affects our world view. Zappa’s hypothesis about beer and marching seems truer all the time. The Christian fascination with wine also seems to go hand in hand with their obsession with love. But of course, other poisons are what fascinate Pollan:

The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species which healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”— in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amantita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen).

These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the Middle Ages? After a long review of how the marijuana cultivation industry has changed over the last twenty years, Pollan offers an interesting slant on the persistence of cannabis. He ultimately ends up arguing that the effects of marijuana are primarily socially induced. People smoke dope and get paranoid not because there is anything in the drug that induces paranoia, but because the social construction of a marijuana high is governed by the law. Like so many gender theorists, Pollan argues that the juridical construction of the “evil weed” is what causes the bad side effects, and the congenial sociality and laughter is also largely socially induced. Placing all the typically acceptable drugs in the same category, he argues for drug use as a tool:

All these plants are, at least potentially, mental tools; people who know how to use them properly may be able to cope with everyday life better than those who don’t.

It’s the “properly” that troubles me here— the root of normative social behavior. While the beer-drinking marching crowd serves the great protestant work ethic, I find it hard to picture a time when smoking pot and watching brainless TV will be seen as a positive social force. However, I suspect that pot would be far more effective than a nation stoned on melloril or prozac. Personally though, I think the difference is fairly slight. I haven’t needed anything for anxiety control since I grew from adolescence, though I have sympathy for those who do.

Pollan argues for a universal desire to transcend ordinary existence. I remember a conversation I had with a professor a while ago— for a profound alteration of world view, there seem to be two great choices: psychedelic drugs and post-structuralist theory. As a kid, the former option seemed best. But now, I’m enjoying the more theoretical route. It’s much easier on the body for the long haul.

Understanding Moll


Understanding Moll

One of the great things about reading several books at one time is the way that they intersect. After finishing off the Foucault last night, I returned to the trials and tribulations of Moll Flanders. One of the curiosities of the book for me has been the frequency that she speaks of changing her name. She is referred to as Betty through most of the text; I haven’t yet encountered her calling herself Moll. I’ve reached the turning point noted by many critics used to divide the book into its two main parts (there are no chapters). She’s now been turned into a thief. Being a woman of loose morals isn’t nearly as big of a sin, it seems, as stealing.

But there is a moment of dramatic clarity just before this happens. Her seduction of her fourth husband is an interesting twist— with a bit of an inheritance from her third husband (her half-brother)— she woos a man who seems to have a great fortune, while coyly intimating (as she did with her third husband) that she had one of her own. They both deceived each other, because they were both poor. To make things even more interesting, this fourth husband was a Catholic. Upon the discovery that there was no money available, the husband releases her from her marital bond— but she is with child. Another man, her investment councilor, had managed to rid of his “whorish” wife, and wanted to marry her. The problem was, what about the child?

It is manifest to all that understand any thing of Children, that we are born into the World helpless and incapable, either to supply our own Wants, or so much as make them known; and that without help, we must perish; and this help requires not only an assisting Hand, that is, Care and Skill, without both which, half the Children that are born should die; nay, tho’ they were not to be deny’d Food; and one half more of those that remained would be Cripples or Fools, loose their Limbs, and perhaps their Sense: I Question not, that these are partly the Reasons why Affection was plac’d by Nature in the Hearts of Mothers to their Children; without which they would never be able to give themselves up as ’tis necessary they should, to the Care and waking Pains needful to the Support of their Children.

SINCE this Care is needful to the Life of Children, to neglect them is to Murther them; again to give them up to be Manag’d by those People, who have none of that needful Affection, plac’d by Nature in them, is to Neglect them in the highest Degree; nay, in some it goes farther, and is a Neglect in order to their being Lost; so that ’tis even an intentional Murther, whether the Child lives or dies. (173-4)

In this moment, Moll reveals a rationale behind her own sorry state, and the future state of her child (who she does give up). The concern over “the children” is manifest long before Foucault proposes. Defoe’s moral tale holds parenting as it as its central trope, far more overpowering than any indictment of licentiousness. You have to love Moll’s recounting of her state prior to her fifth marriage:

Then it occurr’d to me that what an abominable Creature am I! and how is this innocent Gentlemen going to be abus’d by me! How little does he think, that having Divorc’d a Whore, he is throwing himself into the Arms of another! that he is going to Marry one who has lain with two Brothers, and has had three children by her own Brother! one that was born in Newgate, whose mother was a Whore, and is now a transported Thief; one that has lain with thirteen Men, and has had a Child since he saw me! poor Gentlemen! said I. (182)

Quite an interesting list of credits for Moll, now 44 years old. More the fate of an orphan, than her own fall due to sin. Her mother-in-law (third marriage) had previously expressed sorrow over the loss of her girl-child (Moll). With the weight of her mother’s sin, the early death of her fifth husband, who leaves her broken and with no recourse but to steal, is predicted. A cautionary tale of parenting gone horribly wrong, a problem that I am sure will be addressed in the end.