“[S]urgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want.”

Only in America, mes petites; only in America.

Only in America would a person even think to say that anyone presenting herself to a surgeon as simply wanting this or that surgery must get it. The special brew here, of limitless national wealth and limitless personal entitlement, is uniquely American.

*************

Scathing Online Schoolmarm says: The quality of writing in the opinion piece is strikingly high; I love the prose. The larger argument that happiness is not an end (see Adam Phillips for some of the best language about this) is an excellent one. Plus, the writer had a lot of good stuff to say about the recent Avital Ronell embarrassment.

But otherwise. Good lord.

Here’s the second in my three-part series of lectures on poetry…

… given at the Georgetown Public Library. Another good turn-out today, with a terrific post-lecture discussion.

**********************************

Lecture Two: Stirring dull roots with spring rain: Poetry as Life Itself April 9, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.


I
DREADING SPRING, DREADING NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

Rather than begin with a summary of last Saturday’s talk, I’ll be referring to it throughout this one, reminding you of continuities if you were here last week, and laying out those continuities I hope sufficiently clearly for those of you who weren’t.

It’s April, and the world wants us to be happy.

The sun is out in a particularly thrilling way (at least it has been) – it emerges from the dark, from the overcast of rain showers. Cherry trees are animated by the wind; the world wants us to feel and see its aliveness. The morning bird chorus is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even the weird weather – full-on spring, then snow, then a wind storm, then spring again – is part of the thrill. Gaia – the earth as living organism – wants us to feel and hear and celebrate its aliveness – and our aliveness, as part of the living organism that is the planet. And here I’ll remind you of the quotation from the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips around which my first lecture revolved: “Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear, and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” The provocation toward aliveness is arguably most acutely felt in excitingly transitional April. October is wistfully transitional; April is excitingly transitional. Things are blooming back to life, not flaming out toward death.

I mean, that’s one way – a pagan way if you like – to put it, to put the way we and generations of poets seem to feel about the spring. Poets after all are people who put our emotional and intellectual intuitions about this season on paper. Poets duly note the feelings coursing through them as the winds exhilarate them and long drifts of tulips thrill them.

A Christian poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins (by the way, we’ll look at his most famous poem next Saturday, for my final lecture in this series) will see all of this as animated not by Gaia but by God, a God to whom we can pray and even with whom, as Hopkins says in one of his poems, we can “contend.” His poem, which I’ve distributed, called “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend,” is an extended complaint about the disparity between the poet’s inner lack of aliveness and happiness and generativity, and the patent aliveness and happiness and generativity of the world in spring. Why should I be dead and the world alive? Everything in the world is blessed by God with vitality and delight and creativeness – everything except me.


… banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

It’s the same deal we discussed last week in regard to the famous opening lines of TSE’s The Waste Land – winter kept us – the dead – warm; spring now hurts us with sharp reminders of our spiritual deadness relative to a living world.

Here’s a DH Lawrence poem that makes the same move, first marveling at the spring and then concluding

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.

Indeed there are plenty of poems that contend with spring, that actually hate the spring because it brings the “lie” of life, the myth of repleteness and generativity. Edna St Vincent Millay ends her poem “Spring” in the following way:

Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is not merely that we may feel internally inert; we may have a metaphysical appraisal in play about life as nothing. We may be nihilistic, or we may have strong nihilistic tendencies. “It is not enough”; Millay wants more – and it is our too-much desire – our unsatisfiable desire always for more, for a spring and for a world and indeed for a poem that will not be nothing, that will not, after its invigorating language rouses us to something, that will not remind us with a crash that life in itself may be nothing, and any particular poem is in this all-deflating context in itself no big deal. We desire a poem that does not make us turn away in disappointment from beautiful things like the spring and like poems.

Another poet, Kim Addonizio, in “Onset,” ends her poem of spring-dread (and note that title – “onset” – like a disease) by saying

it’s spring
and it’s starting again, the longing that begins, and begins, and begins.

And never gets anywhere – a painful perpetual advent of desire, prompted by spring. Desire, Freud wrote, is always in excess; and desire in the context of spring, or in the act of reading a gorgeous vivid poem, is uncontrollably prompted to be excessive.

Or let me give you a musical example, an argument about something rather brilliant that Beethoven does in some of his late works according to Dmitri Tymockzo. Recognizing our “excessive” desires and the impossibility of any musical work fully satisfying them, the composer incorporates the idea of excess, of the impossible to reach musical apotheosis inside certain works.

One might say that Beethoven’s musical “idea”–that is, the thematic material, as originally presented in [one of his] Sonata’s exposition–is in conflict with the limitations of his instrument, as represented by the high D in the soprano voice. The music “wants” to reach a high B-flat, but it gets “stuck” on the lower note. Such conflicts between musical “ideas” and the exigencies of actual performance are typical of Beethoven’s music. Especially in his late pieces, Beethoven frequently wrote music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play: for example, the very high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, or certain near-impossible leaps in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106. In these passages, the musical score seems to be in conflict with the human beings who are trying to perform it.

What is unusual, even unique, about the Tempest is the way the music seems to portray its own limitations. Instead of a conflict between the music and its performers, or between the desire of the composer and the abilities of the players, the Tempest is a piece of music that is in conflict with itself… the drama of the passage is the way it symbolizes both desire–in the form of the chromatically ascending chords–and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try–as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. Needless to say, this coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.

Much poetry as well, let us say, folds its knowledge of our impossible desire and the reality of its own inadequacy into its mode of expression. That’s another reason people hate it. Recall that I began my first lecture in this series with the following quotation from the film The Big Short:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

The critic Ben Lerner suggests a related reason why people hate poetry:

There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ – to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or, like Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology; to propound a measure of value beyond money, to defeat the language and value of existing society etc – but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse … Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.

Don DeLillo, in his novel Point Omega, says something similar in a more gentle way:

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Poetry simply cannot encompass what our excessive desire – here, for the truth – desperately wants it to encompass. And when poetry does try to convey a truth – the truth that perhaps life is nothing, or, as John Updike wrote in a poem composed on his deathbed:


For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

when poetry tells us stuff like this – we hate it.

We perhaps mind a little less philosophers pulling the rug out from under us. It’s an intellectual point, rather than an emotionally felt and beautifully – persuasively – rendered truth, when the philosopher Thomas Nagel writes:

[There is an inevitable collision] between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.

This might be the point in my talk to remind you that April is National Poetry Month. For this universal doubt may extend to a certain sort of faith we have may in poetry itself.

While not a government initiative, NPM is celebrated by federal as well as private institutions – and the orientation of NPM activity is of course celebration. Yay, poetry! Yet the poet Richard Howard calls NPM “the worst thing that’s happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” while his fellow poet, August Kleinzahler asserts that – contrary to the NPM ethos – “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The complex and often dark interiority that serious poetry expresses has no place, these poets argue, in the typically affirmative, very public, and, they believe, inevitably trivializing NPM setting. Kleinzahler worries that the difficult and even hateful truth, if you will, that significant poetry so often conveys, is at odds not just with the ethos of NPM but with the folksy upbeat popular presentation of poetry that we get from national figures like Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion.

There is also a UN-sponsored World Poetry Day (March 21), by the way, which is even more celebratory. If you go to the UNESCO WPD site, you read this:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings.

I wouldn’t call this a revelation; I’d call it a platitude.

So is that the poetic choice for us as readers? Platitudes we hate or truths we hate?

One way to answer this question is to consider whether our experience or intuition of a certain arbitrariness or even nothingness underlying our existence has to be bitter or disappointing as we meet it poetically. Do we have to go again and again to the poet and hate her because she rouses a desire that there be something and then suggests that there may be nothing? Could it be the opposite – could poetry be one important place where we go to feel, grapple with, explore, play out, the problem of the arbitrary?

The poet John Ashbery indeed argues for a different approach to all of this; in talking about his love of Rothko and Pollack paintings, he asks:

Does their work amount to anything? There’s a possibility that it doesn’t, although I believe in it and want it to exist.

Ashbery goes on to call avant-garde art in general “reckless,” and he notes that

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

In other words, the possibility that life and the various – call them convictions of substance – that we bring to it are founded on nothing – that all of this is a shabby subterfuge, or a shell game, or a big short – means that positing something — faith in God, faith in beauty, faith in humanity, faith in poetry — can be seen as a kind of beautiful and bracing recklessness, a heady, blithe, risky, radical assumption of freedom. Art is one of the major places this free play plays out. Thus Ashbery invites us to enjoy the substance – the stuff that we as human beings make come into existence – even if it has or is very likely to have no substance. He invites us to expect the artist’s positing of this sort to be done in a tentative playful vague messy not quite there way – Pollack, Rothko, or take another great 20th century painter, Cy Twombly. Or take the greatest modern writer of fiction in English – James Joyce. The critic Hugh Kenner says of Joyce that he wants to capture in his prose “the haphazardly evidential quality of life.” We’re not arriving at firm conclusions; we’re gathering and narrating and witnessing the suggestive (evidential) but pretty random flow of experience. Ashbery thus invites us to expect precisely the sort of poetry he and his friend James Schuyler write – sketchy, associative, slangy, inconclusive. So let’s look at our Schuyler poem, the absurdly long Hymn to Life.

II
HYMN TO LIFE

Maybe idiot babbling and flower-strewing of the sort Edna St Vincent Millay complains about at the end of her spring poem is the best a poet who doesn’t want to disappoint us – or to simply register her disappointment – can do. Maybe what our best poets can offer on the spring – on life as a felt bubbling up within us of desire, of longing – is a sort of organized babbling, if that makes any sense.

Hymn to Life – our central spring poem here – can feel like babbling – rather than the song of praise that the word “hymn” prepares us for – and this is for a number of reasons. It goes on and on and on. Its pace never changes – it’s all a collection of neat, complete non-metrical sentences – very few exciting dashes, no mysterious ellipses. No rhyme, no really beautiful or new language. No drama here. It offers no clear symbolism or indeed recurrently meaningful figurative language of any kind. It seems without structure – its words don’t gather up into some moment of truth, epiphany, climax, revelation, acceptance, wisdom. The poetic persona is quite flat – no ecstatic Wordsworth or neurotic Sylvia Plath here, just a pleasant ordinary guy calmly woolgathering. Its lines are long and conversational and rather meandering. Some of its language is strikingly, well, platitudinous – its register often dips into dippy. Dippy or obvious or obviously inadequate or vague.

If it has a discernible form, this poem is a kind of back and forth between objective immediate descriptions of things the poet sees around him as he writes – daily ordinary stuff like trucks delivering goods and dandelions coming up – and what I’d call weak existential questions. The poet doesn’t pretend to be a philosopher or to have anything new to bring to our basic inquiries having to do with being, with knowledge, and with the passage of time. Rather, he seems to want to record faithfully the way these unsettling and pretty much unanswerable questions emerge randomly, and again rather weakly, out of the ordinary moments of our lives. Those of you who know Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway might think here of Peter Walsh slowly falling asleep on a park bench while Woolf’s prose follows his faltering stream of consciousness which, like Schuyler’s, turns out to be a combination of quotidian immediate observation and the sudden odd unanswerable existential inquiry.
In short, Schuyler seems to be trying to embed our accurately rendered mental experience in its present-time natural setting; he wants to show how our questions emerge – in real time – out of our experiences. We are not monks retreating to a hermitage in order to prompt meditation; nor are we like monks in already having a transcendent belief framework within which to experience existential questions. So the tension, for instance, between Gerard Manley Hopkins and God that we saw in the poem of his that we looked at earlier – that sort of poetic drama – just isn’t there. Which means that among the risks Schuyler takes in writing a poem of this sort is simply boring you. I’ll be interested, in the discussion after my talk, in finding out how many of you were able to read this poem all the way through.

So here’s its beginning – obviously we’ll only be able to jump about in this poem by way of analysis.

The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp
And lifts its head with twigs and small dead blades of grass
Pressed into it as you might at the beach rise up and brush away
The sand.

An awkward first sentence, no? A bunch of simple clauses strung together with the word AND. He begins by personifying the wind, which, catching up in its energy twigs and grass, is like a person whose cheek grazes a surface and picks up things from that surface. It’s a strange, strained equivalence – the head of a person, the movement of the wind. And the likeness becomes even more strained when he compares the wind to a very precise human movement – getting up from the beach and brushing sand away from your skin. There’s a kind of defiant silliness to this comparison, made even sillier by the next line.

The day is cool and says, “I’m just staying overnight.”

The day, like a terse house-guest, assures us that the coolness of its air will soon be replaced by something warmer… These lines seem virtual satires of what traditional poets do as they hunt out appropriate metaphors and personify the world around them. (In terms of wind, for instance, think of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”) Schuyler has just taken them a bit too far – his comparison is overwrought and his personification is childishly extreme. Mr Day says I’m just staying overnight. Something from a children’s book.

Yet one of the things I think Schuyler’s trying to convey throughout this poem is the hopelessly and wonderfully human world in which we live. We can’t help humanizing everything; it’s not really childish, it’s just the way we are. We constantly project our attributes onto inanimate objects (the melancholy moon), and here the poet is simply being playful with that impulse by way of making us aware of it – by way of making us see how we actually think. Back to the poem.

The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence
And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made:
There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk and, not here, but
Not so far away, a scream so rending that to hear it is to be
Never again the same. “Why, this is hell.”

Note the lack of sense (between the music?), the again rather childishly awkward and simplistic formulations (geese – that – honk), and the absurdly abrupt shift of mood – from pleasantries about our musical world to the fact of hearing a hideous (human?) scream. It must be a human scream, because we suddenly get a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus: Mephistopheles saying that yes, he is in hell, stuck in hell. So in a few lines we have jumped from pleasant naive nature imagery to the darkest evil. Yet nothing is being brought to this strange jumble by way of a sensibility – and think of last week’s poem, The Waste Land — all of its strange juxtapositions and literary quotations there are made coherent, from the poem’s title onward, by the depressive, cynical, disgusted, and at times elegiac mood of the speaker.. But here is a poem that announces itself as a song of praise to life and in the first few lines we have the statement that we are in hell.
The lines that follow these make clear that the speaker is – among other things – remembering a childhood in Washington DC, and he’s in particular remembering April here, which means cherry blossoms and other iconic spring settings. Let’s continue with another section of the poem.

Tomorrow
Will begin another spring. No one gets many, one at a time, like a long
Awaited letter that one day comes. But it may not say what you hoped
Or distraction robs it of what it once would have meant. Spring comes
And the winter weather, here, may hold. It is arbitrary, like the plan
Of Washington, D.C. Avenues and circles in asphalt web and no
One gets younger: which is not, for the young, true, discovering new
Freedoms at twenty, a relief not to be a teen-ager anymore.

The feel of this – and the feel of the whole poem – is laconic, mildly contemplative, with language that gestures toward the possibility of higher and clearer perceptions of things but never quite gets there. Again, this is a mind in the present-time process of thinking about things and describing things: we can’t expect non-sketchy, fully formed thoughts and arguments. Further, given what I’ve so far suggested, we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter the word arbitrary early on. Spring may well fail to satisfy our expectations of it, either romantic or weather-related, and we should accept that failure and the larger arbitrariness of reality in which it occurs – as we ourselves right here accept today that snow of all things was in today’s forecast.

The final lines of this excerpt point again to the loose free associational movement of this poem – how can he go from our city’s circles in asphalt to no one getting any younger (a platitude), after which he says – paradoxically – that actually one can get younger in the sense that the transition from teenage years to one’s twenties tends to be one of greater freedoms (i.e., you feel younger). These are the squirrelings of a real mind in real time. And a mind dealing throughout the poem with time passing, with getting older – he is now, we gather, fifty, and he’s not happy about this.

The turning of the globe is not so real to us
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. “I
Need you,” tree, that dominates this yard, thick-waisted, tall
And crook branched. Its bark scales off like that which we forget:
Pain, an introduction at a party, what precisely happened umpteen
Years or days or hours ago.

Pedestrian, yes, and sort of winsomely lame or lamely winsome; yet this is the mind, it is life as it is lived and this poem is a hymn to life. Life as it is. This is the recognizable human mind, thinking true and it seems to me occasionally rather insightful things. That we can be told all our lives about earth’s rotation and never “realize” this – never feel it as any kind of reality – seems intriguing and worth thinking about, as does the fact that what we can grasp tends to be what’s closest to us, like obvious seasonal changes and of course the movement of the sun across one full day. I mean, this is the theme of our smallness, our incapacity in the face of large terrestrial and large metaphysical challenges – but the feel of the poem, again, is not one of disappointment or longing or bitterness in the face of our limitations, our parochial lameness. This is a poem that shows us how it would look not to write like the embittered spring poems I quoted from in the first part of this lecture, but rather to write poetry out of the rather unevolved apprehension of a world of “cut-outs” – a very partial and simple form of world-apprehension, but perhaps a form of world-apprehension with empirical reality, and with much to recommend it.

As this excerpt proceeds, we once again get the almost-comically childish humanization of nature. “I need you,” tree, because you’re tall and solid and permanent and I’m small and insubstantial and transient. Gazing at you, I can begin to sense the history of my own growth – what has remained in place, what has scaled off – what is important, what is unimportant. Gazing at you I can strengthen my sense of both the sameness of my life and my impermanence, and maybe come to some sort of peace with these things.

Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
Daily life.

The life that Hymn to Life is celebrating and praising is – let’s argue – the very unforced flow of its own language, the life of one human being’s forward poetic energy. This is why Michael Hofman calls this poem “a long, tangent-driven poem-fleuve.” It is a long babbling river of words, exhilaratingly (or maybe boringly) unforced. In this passage, Schuyler rightly notes that all our lives, even as we’re busy making a life, we wait for a moment, we idealize a moment, when everything will fit and flow together with ease and naturalness. We dream of a time when we’re not anxious about time, not weighed down by the business of desiring a certain future for ourselves, but instead freed to think of the passage of time as a calm “just more of the same” sort of thing. Schuyler’s poem I think wants to exemplify this perhaps better way to live – a long unforced freeing of consciousness in which we are able to perceive that we should – uh – go with the flow.

A
Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and
One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?
An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth
Become an idle thought. like, “Shall we plant some periwinkles there
By that bush? They’re so to be depended on.”

Note how the movement of this excerpt is toward the more and more trivial, the more and more minute, as we “slope” down from Aeschylus to a vague invocation of “ideas” to the degradation of basic truths over time to little more than idle daily pragmatic thoughts. This is clearly a poem distrustful of ideas and great thinkers — they are to be forgotten.


III
THE RECOVERY OF APPETITE AND THE NEED NOT TO KNOW YOURSELF

To conclude: I have, in this lecture, offered you two models of spring poems, which is to say poems about the recovery of aliveness, felt seasonally and – as a personal possibility – internally. One model of poem – inaugurated for our time by Eliot’s The Waste Land, but as I hope my examples showed, succeeded – and to some extent preceded – by countless other similar poems – one model is essentially a complaint having to do with the disparity between one’s sense of one’s own meager inner sources and supplies of aliveness and the profuse aliveness of the natural world around you in spring. Lord, send my roots rain.

I don’t deny that there are other poems – some of them by Hopkins himself – which are straightforward celebrations of the advent of spring and of the sense of one’s own aliveness returning in the spring. I am arguing that the complaint mode tends to dominate in our time as we become oppressed by our sense that the sources of meaning and value that have traditionally kept human beings reasonably buoyant whatever the season are perhaps in modernity and postmodernity no longer there, whether these sources were pagan (we are part of nature and therefore as subject to its recurrences and exhilarations as nature itself; and by the way if you want a version of cutesy modern paganism, I’ve included in your handouts e e cummings’ poem, in just spring) or religious (the spring is a gift to us from God, and to be celebrated as such).
I have also suggested that a certain sort of twentieth century poem represents a rather intelligent and workable alternative to the complaint mode, and that James Schuyler’s Hymn to Life is a strong example of that kind of poem. Rather than note the spring-inspired recurrence of desire, longing, aliveness in oneself and then – recall our poetic examples – shake your fist at nature for having stirred atavistic energies within oneself that will never be allowed to run as free as the wind — or let us suggest along with Adam Phillips that you will never allow them to run free — rather than doing that, perhaps you could, like Schuyler, stop fretting that “life in itself is nothing” (quoting Millay) or contending with God for having unjustly singled you out for nothingness, and instead perhaps you could adopt the rather more fun ‘acrobatics’ of John Asbery, who, you will recall, says this:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

Here we simply fly above the possible nothingness; yet more, we find beautiful our own recklessness – our artists’ recklessness – in doing that. A poem like Hymn to Life could be understood as endless flight above the abyss, with the poet’s endless words a way of staying aloft not by finding sources of support like religion and other forms of steadying, transcendent belief, but simply by maintaining verbal altitude. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus says that as a writer he’s going to “fly by those nets” – he’s going to soar above the nets of religion, nationality, and all the other inherited foundational beliefs that have oppressed him. But that’s a different model; in our time the nets have been folded away; they can no longer save – or entrap – you. Our artists fly above an abyss.

Asked why one writes, the critic Harold Bloom responds:

One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad. One writes to be able to write the next piece of criticism or to live through the next day or two. Maybe it’s an apotropaic gesture, maybe one writes to ward off death. I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.

Dying here can be understood not merely as physical death but the spiritual, affective, drying out, the personal enervation, the inability to be adequate to the life of the world, about which so many of the poets of our time write. The ongoingness we noted in Schuyler’s poem – our sense that what moves it forward is not a myth, an organization of symbols, a narrative, a sensibility, or even much of a point – turns out to be life itself, the poet’s reckless pouring out of song which is his life, his particular mode of being an individual in the world at a particular time, with a certain unresolvable set of memories, confusions, regrets, and so forth and so forth and so forth, all of which being a poet, he turns into poetry. Such a poem will end anywhere and anyhow; it will begin anywhere and anyhow; one can excerpt from it anywhere and anyhow. It is the ongoingness that life is, life understood as the sort of thing that doesn’t work over time toward great moments of insight and acceptance and reconciliation and triumph and vindication and utter collapse and whatever you’re hoping and dreading it works toward.

It’s like that great poem by Philip Larkin – arguably England’s greatest mid-twentieth century poet – called I Remember, I Remember, when he thinks back on the town in which he grew up. Here’s part of it:

Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’…

No, apparently the lives of most of us don’t work that way.

But they do! I hear you protest.

Well, maybe. But how about the possibility that we project narrative neatness – rising action, climax, denouement – on lives that actually look more like Schuyler’s poem? That we secure our foundations via plot points? Let me quote again from Adam Phillips.

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

If Phillips is right (and maybe he’s not, but let’s go with this), then one function of a certain sort of art – poetry, painting, music – would be to accustom us to the suspension of this baleful project of self-knowing, to pleasure us into the sort of acrobatics that would do away with whatever coherent, narrative, foundational sources of knowledge – self-knowledge, world-knowledge – are tying us down and starving us.

This is not know-nothingism. As Phillips says, the project of knowing now would become one in which we try to know not who we are in some coherent plotted sense, but “about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.” By “things,” I don’t think Phillips means ideologies and philosophies and shared transcendent convictions. I think he means, more or less, personal projects, activities, relationships, conversations, forms of inquiry, that you for one reason or another happen to find engrossing. This model of life might imply, as it seems to do in Schuyler’s poem, a modest, reasonably selfless, present-time orientation toward questions of value. What do I see right now as I look around me? What among the things of the world I’m looking at compels in me particular? Yet this “appetitive” model of a life, as I understand it, as Phillips evokes it, doesn’t have to be particularly moral, or at least conventionally moral — what makes your life worth living might be wasting time, or being ruthlessly ambitious. The point is that whatever you’re engrossed by you’re not hastily, impatiently, even bitterly, insisting on some larger fulfillment, some larger structure, within which the thing that engrosses you, the thing that excites your appetite has a larger payoff than things in the sort of world we now inhabit tend to have.

If I can conclude with a return to the problem with things like National Poetry Months and International Poetry Days. The objection that quite a lot of poets have with a day or a month all for them (you’d think they’d be grateful) is precisely the pre-formed, socially affirmative, morally uplifting, publicly acceptable, character of poetry under the sign of on-command-inspirational large-group events. Public poetry in our time tends to be exactly what Phillips is objecting to – a statement of who I am, an affirmation of my roots, my story. Perhaps we should fly above those very unreliable nets.

UD’s First of Three Poetry Lectures at the Georgetown Public Library.

A good crowd showed up yesterday for the first lecture in UD‘s three-lecture series at Georgetown Public Library. Friends, former students, people from the community around the library. She was thrilled.

The library is steps away from Dumbarton Oaks, a place with two claims on UD: Her mother, and her mother’s mentor, Wilhelmina Jaschemski, spent a lot of research and conference time there; and UD has all her life been visiting its gardens. So after her talk she and Mr UD and UD‘s sister walked through the gardens.

It was a good day.

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Poetry, and Being Too Much for Ourselves

When you think of the apparent general appraisal of poetry in this country today, it’s maybe amazing that anyone is in this room.

Some of you may have seen the recent film, The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse. In that film, which reflects on the fraudulent nature of our capital markets, and the propensity of people to blind themselves to what’s going on in those markets – either because they’re fraudsters themselves profiting from the system, or because they’re dupes who think they’re going to profit from it – in that film, a person says the following: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

No wonder the government had to designate National Poetry Month. Is there a National Fiction Month?

So there’s one definition of poetry or one approach to a definition of poetry, with which we can begin. Americans don’t want to hear the truth; they’re more comfortable in their soft, bogus, self-deceiving world, a world that English majors learn to call “simulacral,” and poetry expresses the truth. Poetry is the hated truth-teller in the land of affluent comfortable swaddled reality-averse people: the Cassandra, the Tiresias who sees the difficult truth of present and future but perhaps precisely for that reason is disbelieved, disrespected, hated. Poetry tells you that the seeming returns of life are too good to be true. You’re in Madoff-world.

But here’s the first paradox I’d like to introduce in this talk about poetry and paradox: Huge numbers of people in this country will tell you they love poetry, respond to poetry.

Or is it poetry, really, that they love? Maybe they love pleasant verse, happy rhymed sentiments. Pretty metrical lies. The sort of thing, I suspect, we’ll be hearing a lot during National Poetry Month. Do we want to call that poetry? Do we intend that sort of thing in our definition of poetry?

Remember what Mario Cuomo once said, in a much-quoted line: “You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.” Well, if you campaign in poetry, this cannot mean that everyone hates it, since you’d like to get elected and you want to talk to the largest number of people in a way that will help make that happen. So here Cuomo indeed must have in mind the idea of poetry as the complete opposite of the sort of stuff the library has kindly copied and collated for you today. He must have in mind easily understood, inspirational (rather than truth-bearing) language, aspirational language. We couldn’t be farther, it seems, from poetry as understood in the first statement, from the film.

Don’t people often mean by poetry elevated, rousing, in some sense “fraudulent” or at least unreal language? And in campaigning one appeals to grand and encouraging sentiments – love of country, love of party, love for one another, yes we can – after which, having used this language to whomp up voters in order to get elected, you turn to the pragmatic, grubby, prosaic, no we can’t reality of governing. Poetry is not the antidote, the truth serum, against our con-man, Ponzi world. It is itself one more Ponzi scheme. We invest our emotions in it and then we stand there like idiots, waiting to get our investment back.

We might want to say at this point that we’ve got very roughly speaking two senses of poetry in play: There’s what you might call serious private “hated” poetry which can be said to be truth-bearing (although just how poetry conveys the truth of existence to us will be at the core of my arguments about the genre poetry in this series); and there’s unserious public poetry which conveys the lies or half lies or unlikelihoods we all like to hear, triggers the sentiments we all like to feel.

I’ll be arguing in this series of talks that though most of us are suckers for the easy, affirmative, flattering, shared emotions of “campaign” poetry, to take on poetry with any seriousness, poetry as a meaningful, complex, and beautiful human utterance, surely means taking on the more “hateful,” truth-bearing writing we’re looking at today. One of my favorite descriptions of poetry has it that Poetry is the tunnel at the end of the light. The poet Maxine Kumin said: “All poems are elegies at their core.” So sure most people hate poetry.


Campaign Poetry

Before we look at these poems, poems about snow and our relationship to the natural world, let me say one more thing about campaign poetry.

A strange thing is happening in the current presidential campaign cycle, on the Republican side. If these candidates are campaigning in poetry, they are channeling Allen Ginsberg. Spontaneous, unscreened, rageful, deeply self-revealing, even obscene – this is hardly the language of poetic campaigning that Cuomo had in mind. Postmodern American culture has generated two presidential primary finalists whose edgy unvarnished bizarre emotional figurative utterances look a lot like avant-garde poetry, with a special emphasis on the surrealists.

Ted Cruz for example has recited – I assume he wrote – a modern 17-syllable haiku, in the rat haiku tradition. There are lots of haikus about rats. Cruz didn’t break it up into short lines adding up to seventeen syllables – I did that. But his utterance does have the right number of syllables and the feel and the characteristics of a haiku.

Here’s a rat haiku – not Cruz’s:

Rat feet on wood floor

Thunder running left to right–

Small things make big noise.

Here’s the Ted Cruz haiku:


Trump may be a rat

But I have no desire to

Copulate with him.

Again, this cannot be what Cuomo had in mind by campaign poetry, yet it does sound something like poetic utterance, in the tradition of Baudelaire and Rimbaud as well as Ginsberg, with their enigma, sexual darkness and unhinged bitterness and aggression.

Indeed, isn’t this all too much? Aren’t many of us unsettled by this campaign because of its scorched earth, barnstorming, desublimation? When Anderson Cooper castigates a presidential frontrunner for talking “like a five-year-old,” he makes explicit the uncontrolled escape of the id from the clutches of the ego at the highest levels of public discourse in our time. Indeed, the other night, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump “an id with hair.”

Trump reminds us of a truth that the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips expresses in this way:

[E]verybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves… We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost. Freud gets at this in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s as though one is struggling to be as inert as possible — and struggling against one’s inertia.

So there you have another paradox, the sort of paradox poetic language may be supremely suited to express and explore: struggling to be as inert as possible and struggling against one’s inertia.

What does this have to do with out of control presidential candidates?

The Republican front-runners are showing us what it looks like when nothing’s too much, when you let it rip. This makes us embarrassed for them, and anxious about the intensities in the general population that they may be stirring up.

Most of us, after all, tend to be appalled when we act too-muchly. A character in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, an ordinary Chicago lawyer, gets so enraged by his life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.” That we should have such emotions! That we should harbor such intensity of feeling!

For most people, the problem with their intense emotional capacities is how effectively they’ve repressed them, as Phillips suggests. Perhaps they have repressed them too much – another too-muchness in response to a too-muchness – or in disastrous ways.

Along the same lines, the poet Kenneth Rexroth says this about poetry and other arts:

People are by and large routinized in their lives. A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled. If to a certain extent they weren’t, we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty. The organism has to protect itself. It cannot be completely raw.

What the arts do, and particularly what the most highly organized art of speech does, is to develop and refine this very rawness and make it selective. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience. It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted.

Poetry then can be understood as among other things a modulation of our aliveness; poetry helps us be not too alive and not too dead, but just right. This aliveness may take place within the “safe” aestheticized concision of the short intense lyric poem; but precisely because it is “housed” in this way, controlled and “organized,” as Rexroth says, we feel we can give expression to that aliveness. And perhaps that aesthetically induced and controlled aliveness can be an opening onto more actual real-world aliveness.

I find this an intriguing idea, especially from the point of view of the poet him or her self. We’ve so far been talking about why one might read poetry (not forgetting that there are plenty of other reasons – love of beautiful language, etc. – why one might read poetry); but why does one write poetry? What does it mean to write poetry? Here’s what Ted Hughes said about this:

Almost all art is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session. [inert and not inert] [Poetry is] nothing more than a facility… for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction… [T]he physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

For the poet, Hughes suggests, the written poem is what you do with your unacceptably intense emotions, your deep and persistent wounds (Delmore Schwartz refers in one of his poems to “the wound of consciousness”). The successful poem allows for the dulling or suspension of pain, to be sure; but its capacity to clarify also becomes “a healing session” which helps you avoid the destructive deadness that Phillips describes when he talks about our all in some sense running the risk of becoming “alcoholics” as we look for ways to dull ourselves, to be inert, to anesthetize.

When one speaks of the experience of catharsis in art (an observation with roots in Aristotle’s Poetics), one typically has in mind an experience of intellectual as well as emotional clarity. Watching a tragedy onstage brings you to such a peak of pity and terror as to illuminate in a cathartic moment the truth of human existence, and this experience ultimately helps reconcile you to the human condition.

For in yet another paradox, we are clearly both truth-evading and truth-hungry beings, and serious poems have a capacity to bring us to the truth in one of the few ways we can stand to be brought there. “We have art,” Nietzsche wrote, “in order not to perish of the truth.” Art gives us truth aestheticized, fictionalized – not in your face, but embroidered, mythicized, so that – yet another paradox – even as we willingly enter into a safely “other” world of truth, we are in fact consorting with our truths through that fiction. This I think is the healing session Hughes has in mind – a kind of constant reiteration for the poet writing and the reader reading of elegiac truths that we can somehow both see and accept.

The Irish poet John Montague has said, “The urge to comprehend is so deep. It would make little sense to live a life if you didn’t understand what you had done.” And, once again in his novel Herzog, Bellow has his emotionally overwhelmed hero say to himself:

[He wanted] to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live…

This is Herzog trying to figure out how much of his own aliveness he can bear, trying to articulate what it would mean to live under the snow holding his breath and trying to evade death by not living. And trying to articulate the too-muchness of his desire to avoid human limitations by freely and fully and with clarity consummating existence.

This deep urge to comprehend reminds me of a comment a woman who left an extremely orthodox sect of Judaism made to an interviewer recently. The interviewer first notes that “Ironically, [the woman] misses the very religious life that pushed her away.” Here is what she says:

“I miss the faith. Having faith like that is very empowering — the feeling that you think you know the code of life.”

Poetry at its best will never give you the code, the key, all the answers (and note that all the answers as given are almost always redemptive) to all the questions. It will set out all the difficult paradoxes beautifully and fully and with intellectual and emotional honesty.

Winter Kept Us Warm

With this idea of too much, and what poetry does with it, the way poetry acknowledges, expresses, and somehow modulates inner excess in a non-destructive way, I’d like now to turn to the too-much snow we recently had in Washington, to remind you of the great blizzard last January – an event which, if you’re like me, you’ve already pretty much forgotten as the plants in your garden that you thought would never survive the onslaught now burst with bloom.

So to begin with The Waste Land by TS Eliot, I want to concentrate on his famous opening lines:


April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

So here again is poetic paradox: winter kept us warm. Winter was the kind month, not springtime’s April. We had modulated our intensity in such a way as to procure for ourselves “a little life,” sufficient “heat” to survive, and this was bearable, serviceable; it shielded us from our past (memory) and any future (desire); and the blanket of snow was exactly the appropriate corresponding natural world for our existential condition: “forgetful snow” (here Eliot projects a human attribute – the capacity to forget – onto a non-human object – snow – another way of saying that during the winter the world “cooperated” sympathetically with our need to bury our aliveness) suspended our painful and emotionally provoking memories; snow allowed our “roots” to dull and dry and eke out just enough sustenance for us to get by.

And yes, there are historical peculiarities to Eliot’s post World War One Waste Land despair; yet if you read the poems of one of America’s most important living poets – Charles Wright, a recent poet laureate – they are full of similar images of shrunken nature – he’s particularly fond, for instance, of his “dwarf orchard” and of myriad other symbols of a reduced post-Romantic, world. John Asbery’s work shows the same sorts of miniaturized images throughout. So the spiritual/psychological condition of dryness, confusion, withdrawal, and fear that dominates Eliot’s poem is there also in plenty of much later poems (think, in England, of Philip Larkin).

Those lilacs – the flowers symbolize love, and they bloom around Easter, so they cruelly provoke thoughts not merely about the possibility of new life, but the possibility of new passion. The hectic riot of spring blooms, the colors, the warmth, the flowing life-giving water, the intensity of life reasserting itself in a world that had been quiet and manageable and half-dead, is actually felt as cruelty when one feels that intensity as impossibly threatening, when one wants to keep one’s vivacity tamped down because it will end in incomprehension and betrayal and wounding, as in that line from Eliot’s equally famous poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, when Prufrock dreads the possibility that if he finally tells the woman he loves what is truly in his heart, she will turn out never to have wanted his intimacy or confidences:

“That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.”

It is easy to cite other examples, in the art of our time, of characters shrinking from the challenge to be adequate to the world at its most beautiful and temperate and intense. Recall the 1987 film White Mischief, where a woman living in luxury in Kenya after WW2 sits on the terrace of her beautiful house, looks up at a gorgeous African sunrise and groans: “Oh God! Not another fucking beautiful day!”

Or think of the narrator of Bellow’s Ravelstein, sitting in Paris, on a perfect June morning, on the balcony of a grand hotel, with a view of the most stunning part of the city.

The gloss the sun puts on the surroundings – the triumph of life, so to speak, the flourishing of everything makes me despair. I’ll never be able to keep up with all the massed hours of life-triumphant.

There is a keenly felt disparity, in other words, between our inner life and this outer world; we experience ourselves as depressingly inadequate to the provocations and seductions of a fully alive reality. Better the blanketed blizzarded-in world where, relieved of the need to attend to a busy, animate setting, we can at least be provoked to thought – although typically, in this setting, it is the thought of nothingness, as in the final lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man, which describe a listener

who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In reducing the world to zero, the snow allows abstract thought – there is nothing to distract us from elemental questions of being and nothingness.

Robert Frost finds the woods “lovely, dark and deep,” and you can feel his attraction to their morbid nothingness as he drags himself back to a world where he has “promises to keep.” The eighteenth century poet James Thompson found that the “wild dazzling waste, that buries wide / The works of man .. exalt[s] the soul to solemn thought.” And it is the “strange / And extreme silentness” of frost at midnight that provokes Coleridge to meditation. To grappling with the “hated” truth.

The Curtain

In the second poem I’ve included for today – Hayden Carruth’s The Curtain, we see this process of enclosure by the snow and provocation to thought very clearly. Interestingly, this provoked thought will be thought about our evasion of thought, evasion of the truth.

Just over the horizon a great machine of death is roaring and rearing.

We can hear it always. Earthquake, starvation, the ever-renewing sump of corpse-flesh.

But in this valley the snow falls silently all day, and out our window

We see the curtain of it shifting and folding, hiding us away in our little house,

We see earth smoothened and beautified, made like a fantasy, the snow-clad trees

So graceful. In our new bed, which is big enough to seem like the north pasture almost

With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners,

We lie loving and warm, looking out from time to time. “Snowbound,” we say. We speak of the poet

Who lived with his young housekeeper long ago in the mountains of the western province, the kingdom

Of cruelty, where heads fell like wilted flowers and snow fell for many months

Across the pass and drifted deep in the vale. In our kitchen the maple-fire murmurs

In our stove. We eat cheese and new-made bread and jumbo Spanish olives

Which have been steeped in our special brine of jalapeños and garlic and dill and thyme.

We have a nip or two from the small inexpensive cognac that makes us smile and sigh.

For a while we close the immense index of images that is our lives—for instance,

The child on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico sitting naked in 1966 outside his family’s hut,

Covered with sores, unable to speak. But of course we see the child every day,

We hold out our hands, we touch him shyly, we make offerings to his implacability.

No, the index cannot close. And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never

Know. Beyond the horizon a great unceasing noise is undeniable. The machine,

Like an immense clanking vibrating shuddering unnameable contraption as big as a house, as big as the whole town,

May break through and lurch into our valley at any moment, at any moment.

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

This brings us back to that affluent oblivious world I evoked at the beginning of these remarks. Snow is keeping the poet warm and cozy in his wonderful cat-warmed bed; “the curtain of snow” keeps hidden from him a world of “implacable” cruelty and atrocity, and he reckons, in this poem, with his morally unconscionable position of comfortable immunity from it all – or, at best, a passive, spectatorial relationship to it. Like the snow, it comes over you in mysterious, overwhelming drifts.

And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never

Know.

How does one not only survive a world of profound human suffering but even thrive inside one’s own wood-stove-warmed domesticity? Well – another poetic paradox – one doesn’t and can’t but one does. It’s morally unsustainable and morally sustainable. Again we see the reduced world – the manageable world – in which the poet makes himself snug: “our small inexpensive cognac,” the cutesy cat names – versus the “immense index of images that is our lives.” It is all – yes – “too much” for us – we index it away in a file of images which we allow to haunt us; we evoke the memory of the child covered with sores; we aestheticize it and hope this dignifies and immortalizes it and gives it meaning and on some level lets us off the hook for living our unconscionable beautiful lives while it never stops happening. The snow falls in symbiosis with us, just as it falls in sympathy with the speaker of The Waste Land, a natural extension of our impulse to shrink into a small removed life, a delicate helpful shielding gesture from the nature world.

A war photographer in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II stops doing that form of photography because, she says: “No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end.” We can index it all, aestheticize it largely away; and hated poetry is there to tell you that you do that, and to invite you to hate yourself because you do. When the poet, in the final lines of The Curtain, turns to his lover with a toast, it’s a sardonic, ugly toast:

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

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But let’s end on an up note. Here’s our final poem, Louis MacNeice’s “Snow.”

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.


And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Well, it’s a mad riot of paradox, and it’s a nice way to prepare for the poem I’ll be talking about next week, Hymn to Life by James Schuyler. Fire bubbles like water, things are both collateral and incompatible. And it’s madly affirmative, a drunken rush of delight in the face of a world full of magic and richness. Only one word in the poem spoils the fun – spiteful. (Spiteful picks up nicely on, somehow extends, spit.) That fire – it can burn spitefully, but its flames also move about gaily, beautifully.

The situation here is not that different from the situation in Carruth’s poem: the poet sits inside a nice house with roses and bay windows and looks at the snow raging outside. Unlike Carruth, however, who is prompted to recriminate against himself because the snow comes to symbolize his unconscionable immunity from the reality of suffering, MacNeice regards the snow as part of the amazing thrilling paradoxical show the world sometimes puts on. How can there be in the midst of winter huge roses? He watches the foreground of the roses against the background of the snow and marvels at the “rich,” “plural,” “various” nature of earthly existence, an earth which on special occasions tosses up these amazingly beautiful and really almost impossible dualities – huge pink roses, so delicate, and at the same time the massive whirling snow.

Of course the windows are keeping the roses from destruction by the snow – the roses enjoy the same interior immunity from threat as the speakers of all three of today’s poems are – but MacNeice is going to go somewhere very different from the huddled guilty paltry warmth-making of Eliot and Carruth – the scene will instead prompt thoughts of the extraordinary, humanly incomprehensible, magical, astonishing, richness of the natural world. There’s so much more in it than we could possibly see:

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

What worlds of particles and insects and God knows what swarm invisibly within what I can see – the glass, the snow, the roses! This is an expansive, Whitmanesque sentiment – sheer ecstasy at the sheer overflow of stuff — the — okay — the too-muchness of the world. And of course that too-muchness is really our own too-muchness — our capacity for feeling ourselves to be brimming over with vivacity, excitement. This is William Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Next Saturday we’ll look at a ridiculously excessive poem full of MacNiece’s sentiments and ask whether that’s true – whether excess leads to wisdom.

Conclusion

Meanwhile, to end with a return to campaign poetry: If Donald Trump is our next president, I think we will at least have to say that the road of excess leads to the White House. And – being meaning-seeking creatures – we will want to grapple with that fact. We will want to grapple with the paradox that this desublimated public poet, this troubadour of our time, is both madly popular and the most hated politician in modern history.

It’s worth noting that Mario Cuomo, to return to another very public man not above using “campaign poetry,” also was able to describe life in this way:

“You go from stone to stone across the morass.”

This is pure undistilled Samuel Beckett, and while The Big Short fraudsters might hate its elegiac sadness, people who take poetry seriously are liable to appreciate it – not only its compelling imagery, but its approach to important truths.

Poetry is one art form that allows us to experience simultaneously ecstatic communion with an over-generous world, and stony despair. It tempers our too-muchness – organizes our sensibility – so that we can remain in excess and in the truth.

Northeast Corridor Train, New York to the Left.

Cahn Stadium? Reading the letters backwards as they fly.

Flag at half staff. For whom?

Gray bridges and brown skyscrapers in late afternoon fog.

Soundtrack: Glenn Gould (1932-1982), Bach toccatas.

Today’s reading: Excerpts from an interview with Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst.

[P]sychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves…

What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

Cos Cob train station.

Dingy water with thin marshes.

I like the counterintuitive feel of this: Self-knowledge seeker, heal thyself. Not because ignorance or lack of reflection is good, but because limiting who you are in very specific ways gives you a seemingly deterministic justification for repressing your capacity for strong feelings, for undetermined creative energies. Phillips says he cringes whenever anyone begins a sentence I’m the sort of person who…

[E]verybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves… We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost. Freud gets at this in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s as though one is struggling to be as inert as possible — and struggling against one’s inertia.

Where does civilization end and discontent begin? You end up on Phillips’ couch because the resource-management story you’ve expressed all these years is making you one big Salton Sea.

[I think psychoanalysis is really about] showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state — and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

Everything in the corporate, therapeutic, consumption-driven world fights tooth and nail against this model, a model which aligns perfectly with one of UD‘s heroes, Henry Miller of The Tropic of Cancer. And with her first, much-loved boyfriend, David Kosofsky. On the verge of another new year, of what Stephen Spender called ‘one more new botched beginning,’ UD reflects on her many passionate, appetitive, teachers.

There [is in my favorite writers] a sort of blitheness that I love, a pleasure in the recklessness of one’s own mind.

For Saul Bellow’s Centenary.

Why is he this country’s greatest mid-twentieth century fiction writer? (Don DeLillo, a great admirer of Bellow’s, is the late twentieth/early twenty-first century great American writer.)

UD has already tried to answer this question here, and here.

On this occasion, let’s try again.

His prose is beautiful and exciting. It is actually exciting to read him, although in the novel I’m going to look at here, Herzog (1964), virtually nothing happens. A gun is carried but not shot. An “old pistol, the barrel nickel-plated,” it probably wouldn’t go off even if you tried to shoot someone with it. People have sex on bathroom floors, but this was a long time ago, and very little is said about it. A man seems to be having a nervous breakdown in the wake of his wife’s infidelity and desertion, but he never breaks down. He wanders around New York and Chicago, and then retreats to his country house.

Basically if the novel has a plot it’s about his gassing on and on about his personal life and American cultural life and then realizing that maybe he’d better shut up.

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This man, Moses Herzog, is an attractive, well-heeled, well-educated, modern American, forty-seven years old. The novel will give us just a small slice of his life – a few weeks during which he tries hard to recover from the humiliation of his wife (she’s his second wife; he threw over his first for the second) having dumped him for his ex-best friend. She’s got Herzog’s kid now – they’ve got his kid – and they’ve managed to clean him out financially.

Herzog sums up his situation: “I am a mess.”

Because Herzog is an intellectual, the author of excellent articles on currents in Western civilization, much of the novel is an amusing and provocative take on the great gulf between being able to think at a high level about life and actually being able to conduct one. One of Herzog’s friends says to him: “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick. You guys can’t answer your own questions…”

Herzog himself, here and there throughout the book, puts it more grandly.

I fail to understand! thought Herzog… I fail to… but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better – understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?

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Believing that reason can make steady progress from disorder to harmony and that the conquest of chaos need not be begun anew every day. How I wish it! How I wish it were so ! How Moses prayed for this!

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Not that long disease, my life, but that long convalescence, my life. The liberal-bourgeois revision, the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope.

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But I, a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion…

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[He was a man who] had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas.

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Notice in the second example that we shift from first-person narration (How I wish it!) to third (How Moses prayed for this!). Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, from which Bellow learned much about writing, Herzog will shift constantly between a deeply intimate personal voice and a somehow larger, more neutral, third person perspective… Yet the reader feels that both voices belong to Moses Herzog, as if their split mirrors his split consciousness: the vain, wounded, confused, enraged, almost infantile immediacy of Herzog, and the higher level consciousness within him which tries (failingly) to maintain some intellectual dignity and clarity (those clear ideas) amid the ruin he’s made of his life.

His life is a convalescence because he’s always busy recovering from his last disastrous spell of belief in progress, reason, and self-improvement. Cruelty, chaos, hopelessness, bewilderment – these he must accept as seemingly permanent aspects of human existence, despite his ever-recurrent desire to

live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live …

No contest there – anyone would wish to stop both deluding and paralyzing herself in the face of her fear of non-existence; anyone would wish, on the contrary, to live a free, lucid, and passionate life. The reality of all lives, however, is a falling short of these excellent desires, a coming to know the fragility of inspired states, as well as the evasiveness of truth (Philip Roth notes that Herzog is “overpoweringly drawn to bullies and bosses, to theatrical know-it-alls, lured by their seeming certainty and by the raw authority of their unambiguity…”). It is coming to know one’s particular mind-forg’d manacles, the fragility of love, and the power of death as it “Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.”

Herzog thus muses on “the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was.” He’s quite angry about this, this business of existence being recalcitrant to his desires, and it makes him violent. The intensity of this reactive emotion in turn distresses him. “He was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling.”

The particular content of this violence involves his wife and her lover.

He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. … In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse. He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling – horrible and sweet, an orgastic rapture of inflicting death. He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms. Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.

Herzog is in fact full of men feeling and then acting violently because of their similar (though much more inchoate) existential frustrations. Herzog, made incendiary by the recognition that as he is a murderer, so is his wife a murderess, recovers the gun from a drawer in which his father used to keep it — his father, who, in a moment of rage against his son, came close to using it on Herzog. The same friend who tells Herzog what a dumb prick he is gets so enraged by his own life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.”

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And here we enter Adam Phillips territory. Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, presented a series of lectures not long ago on the BCC. He titled them On Being Too Much for Ourselves, and the focus was precisely this condition of emotional excess and the sometimes violent excess – excess of repression, let’s say – that our recognition of and horror at that excess can catalyze.

We are too much for ourselves – in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates – because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

Herzog is a magnificent novel in part because it makes a hell of an effort to include everything in the picture one human being has of himself. (Much like its inspiration, Ulysses.) The effort is necessarily a failure; but when we read Herzog what we experience is the heady “excess” that is art itself. It’s a commonplace since Aristotle that aesthetic experience is in fact one of the primary ways (along with religious experience) we “work off,” if you like, our emotional excess. It’s okay to weep cathartically at Lear; everyone else is doing it, and after all it’s not happening to us, it’s not real. Yet the emotions it evokes are entirely real. And it’s okay that we don’t fashion “clear ideas” out of witnessing Lear, a work of art somehow at once about thought and feeling, and very satisfyingly so; and yet we can’t – aren’t supposed to – pin words to the experience. To read the gorgeous word-torrent that is Herzog is to be able to give in to “violent” aesthetic ecstasy even as we empathize with “violent” (excessive) suffering.

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Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo share an interest in the fate of these hard realities in the modern and then postmodern world. Bellow’s post-war narrator is haunted not only by the Holocaust, but by the weird rapidity with which that world of pain transformed, in America, into a world of affluent well-being (well-being; not profound-desire-satisfaction):

[The dead in the gas chambers] flow out in smoke from the extermination chimneys, and leave you in the clear light of historical success of the West.

By the time we get to DeLillo’s White Noise (1984), “the Holocaust” is not merely an abstraction; it’s an entertainment. Professor Jack Gladney gathers up his students from their frisbee game on the campus green and has them watch grainy black and white images of the Nuremberg rallies for a few minutes, after which they return to their game. While Herzog agonizingly tries to square the nightmare past with the well-lit present, in DeLillo’s world, no one’s even trying.

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Let me end this long post with a close reading of a paragraph from the novel that epitomizes what I’m trying to get at. Its manifest content is suffering, and we are comprehending and taking seriously that suffering as we read. But the main thing we’re experiencing – because of the lushness, the wildness, the discipline (the excess under technical constraint), of the brilliant prose – is delight. And this delight is a kind of modest transcendence of the problem of excess about which Phillips writes.

In the mild end of the afternoon, later, at the waterside in Woods Hole, waiting for the ferry, he looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflections on the bottom. He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, “Praise God — praise God.” His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

Keep your mouth shut also. Here are the last lines of Herzog:

At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.

We know that the universe is violence – the stars, the galaxies… Moses Herzog spends a lot of time in the novel gazing at the night sky and thinking about this – the cosmic turbulence beyond our human turbulence. What I’ve just cited is in fact a scene of self-comforting, of Herzog gazing entranced at tranquil depth — not up at the vast fires above, but down at sweet clear water. His first sentence has a long lulling prayer-like feel, mirroring the calm gentle rapt condition of the main character at this moment. It has many clauses and its words are soft, with gentle letters/sounds in them (W, S, M). They are simple words. Many are monosyllabic. We have left Herzog’s theoretical disquisitions behind and settled into a dreamlike calm similar to Peter Walsh’s as he sits on a park bench in Mrs Dalloway. Note that when he wakes up from his nap on the bench, Walsh thinks “Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough.” Enough! Not some too muchness we have to account for, assimilate into our picture of ourselves, fail to assimilate in its too-muchness, be horrified by that failure, and so forth. No, the outcome of these meditative states seems precisely a new reconciliation to the limitations of existence, a calming down of what Herzog describes in this way:

Eager impulses, love, intensity, passionate dizziness that make a man sick. How long can I stand such inner beating? The front wall of this body will go down. My whole life beating against its boundaries, and the force of balked longings coming back as stinging poison. Evil, evil, evil…! Excited, characteristic, ecstatic love turning to evil.

Here, on the other hand, there’s brightness, purity, light, no stain – here is what Herzog, in his persistent innocence (the American trait that so infuriates his European father), seeks and finds oceanside. Nothing is “balked” – one’s vision is clear through to the bottom. Sweetness, pungency, transparency, a golden quality.

“Never still.” Of course this is the never stillness of earthly nature, whose constant movement has nothing in common with our agonized impulses; and our reminder of this, this world of motion without self-consciousness and misery and longings, is consoling, comforting. Slipping into a kind of spiritual surrender, Herzog goes so far as to entertain the idea of being called by God to enter into nature, to become pure soul. But no – his place is in the “actual sphere” of humanity, with all its vileness. With his own vileness. He’ll stay in the battle of life, being careful to conceal from malignant humanity what happiness he might have been able to rescue from this theater of war.

Paul de Man: True Detective

[He] duly provides a résumé listing an imaginary master’s thesis (“The Bergsonian Conception of Time in the Contemporary Novel”) and an “interrupted” doctoral dissertation (“Introduction to a Phenomenology of Aesthetic Consciousness”). On a separate form, he describes his service [he was in fact a fascist collaborator] in a resistance group during the war…. When his transcript arrives, from the Free University of Brussels, he doctors it to appear that he got his degree…

University Diaries is always interested, as you know, in academic frauds – diploma mill grads, credentials-conjurers, etc. – and no one fits the bill better than Paul de Man. (UD was his student at the University of Chicago, and writes about it here.)

But Youth Wants to Know – What the hell? Why was he an academic God?

I don’t think it was his essays on literature, although the essays very cleverly reveal the way poetic assertions and poetic structures always seem uncontrollably to contain their own idea- and coherence-dissolving refutations. The essays very cleverly reveal the way this inescapable linguistic dissolution-operation applies just as much to the critic who thinks she’s interpreting literature as it does to the writer who thinks she’s creating literature. We think we’re using language to create meaningful fictive worlds and meaningful interpretations of those worlds, but we are being used by language. We are always trapped inside interminable sign-play, and all we can do is fashion more or less self-aware and intricate verbal fabulations, little mythic narratives about what’s going on in literature, the world, and our minds — narratives that reassure us that the world exists, we exist, beauty exists, meaning exists, moral conflict exists, consciousness exists. But we must be self-aware about all of this futility; we must never, as Peter Brooks puts it in describing de Man’s approach, take “the seductions of rhetoric as something in which to believe.” We must, indeed, de Man’s work and life seem to suggest, believe in nothing.

These essays were part of de Man’s immense charismatic appeal, in that they were the written address, if you will, of de Man’s broader, all-out assault on human consciousness. You could look it up there. You could go to the essays and delectate what Harold Bloom called de Man’s “serene linguistic nihilism.”

But de Man’s real appeal, I think (and I’m thinking about it because a new book full of evidence of de Man’s moral degeneracy has just come out and is being widely discussed) lies in his having embodied, for his time, first-rate absolute unswerving nihilism. Not just linguistic nihilism. Everything nihilism. Like America’s current wildly popular nihilist, the tv show True Detective‘s Rust Cohle, Paul de Man seems to have believed that, as Cohle puts it, “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.”

Let’s be clearer about “consciousness.” We assume that we have a quality of self-reflective cerebral aliveness which can be trained to understand the world in clarifying and useful ways. We acknowledge that along with being clarifying and useful, consciousness can be a source of obfuscation and evil and false consolation and many other bad things. Yet few among us assume that because human consciousness can be monstrous as well as illuminating and transformative we must dedicate our lives to loathing it as tragic, and to revealing again and again its absurd insidious pointlessness.

And yet – all reflective people rightly take an interest in nihilism because all reflective people know what it feels like to have – at one point or another in your life – all of the supporting structures in your life collapse. We are drawn to – even seduced by – people we rightly identify as true nihilists or nihilistic in appearance (Amy Winehouse, Chet Baker) because we have room in our consciousness for the possibility that their brutal flattening of value and meaning might be right. A philosopher discusses Rust Cohle’s

meditation on the eyes of murder victims. The idea that they would have welcomed it, that they were being released, [chimes] well with many pessimists. [Rust’s take on the murdered is] a visualization of what the pessimist ultimately holds — that death is to be welcomed…

Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, channels everyone’s nihilistic capacity when he says

These are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

Cohle and de Man represent and represented true detectives of our collective latent nihilism; they’re on the case in our rats’ alleys where the dead men lost their bones, and they are taking notes.

In the latest New Yorker, Louis Menand quotes one of de Man’s colleagues calling him “a connoisseur of nothingness.” In an article written in 1989, when the dimensions of the de Man mess were just emerging, Frank Kermode describes critics influenced by de Man as “connoisseurs of the symmetry between the impossible and the necessary.” (Impossible to use language to posit meaning in a meaningless world; necessary to keep using and positing anyway.) UD would suggest that connoisseurship is the right way to enter into an explanation of de Man’s intellectual appeal. A good wine; a good nihilism. One wants to delectate this endgame. One should want to delectate this endgame, because it is a very serious and real thing. You can do it via Paul de Man quite adequately, and throughout his American adventures people excitedly intuited this about him.

For the still-shivering among us…

UD‘s beloved Henry Purcell’s Cold Song.

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Its meaning? The long-dead – frozen-dead – Spirit of The Cold has been called back to life by Cupid (the song appears in Purcell’s opera King Arthur, first performed in 1691). Having been comfortably dead for a long while, however, The Cold finds thawing into life again excruciating. Having enjoyed

A Quartz contentment, like a stone

The Cold is not at all sure he wants to “rise unwillingly and slow from everlasting snow.” He’s no longer “fit” to bear the “bitter cold” of human life; he prefers to “freeze again to death.”

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Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow

Same deal.

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Or, as Adam Phillips more prosaically says:

The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery.

“Unwittingly, the DSM-5 revisionists are contributing to an impoverishment of meaning…”

Very thoughtful essay on the big new Diagnostic and Statistical sampler, bursting with psychiatric diagnoses for everyone in the family. Like Adam Phillips (“[H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing — the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.”), Patricia Pearson perceives the philosophical destitution of a culture that’s handed the task of self-consciousness over to clueless family physicians — nice people desperately paging through the DSM for tranquilizers. To be sure, the difficult passions are difficult. That doesn’t mean you should pill them away.

This line from the New Yorker’s review of Cosmopolis…

… the new film based on Don DeLillo’s novel of that name —

Cronenberg focuses on the psycho-biological forces that resist a man’s best-laid plans: the lust for chaos and destruction latent in an optimized order, the need for degradation that’s fed by a rigid discipline of self-exaltation, the sickness manifested in an excessive concern for health, the trend to self-mutilation in obsessive grooming, the hunger for colossal failure in the drive for success and for death in the vigilant and violent defense of life all emerge in the course of the film and invest it with an oppressive tension that Cronenberg maintains skillfully.

— reminds UD of these lines from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail… [T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

David Brooks has been gathering life narratives from…

… a bunch of oldies so the rest of us can avoid their fuckups. From the hundreds of accounts he received, he concludes a bunch of things about how to live happily and well.

One theme that runs through his list is drift. You don’t want to sit around vaguely thinking about yourself all the time; you don’t want to think of time as an aimless flow; and you don’t want to be a “rebel and …outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.”

UD thinks that Brooks must mean drifty outsiders, people sort of meaninglessly at odds with their culture. To be meaningfully at odds is to be D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Norman Mailer, Morrissey, Christopher Lasch, Christopher Hitchens, Doris Lessing, Lenny Bruce and tons of others who achieved much. Were/are these happy people? Recall what Adam Phillips says:

Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency and redemption… A culture that is obsessed with happiness must really be in despair, mustn’t it? Otherwise why would anybody be bothered about it at all? It’s become a preoccupation because there’s so much unhappiness. The idea that if you just reiterate the word enough … we’ll all cheer up is preposterous… The cultural demand now is be happy, or enjoy yourself, or succeed. You have to sacrifice your unhappiness and your critique of the values you’re supposed to be taking on. You’re supposed to go: ‘Happiness! Yes, that’s all I want!’ But what about justice or reality or ruthlessness – or whatever my preferred thing is?

The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery. There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or a weakness on the part of scientific research and one of these two groups has got to pull its socks up. Scientists have got to get better and find us a drug and the depressed have got to stop malingering. The ethos is: ‘Actually life is wonderful, great – get out there!’ That’s totally unrealistic and it’s bound to fail.

Darwinian psychoanalysis would involve helping you to adapt, find a niche and enable you to reproduce. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that there is something over and above this. There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project. That seems to me to be persuasive.

One of the things I value about psychoanalysis is that it acknowledges that there are real difficulties in living, being who one’s going to be, and that no one’s going to be having a lobotomy. There isn’t going to be a radical personal change, which doesn’t mean that people can’t change usefully, but really that psychoanalysis is against magic. Ideally it enables you to realise why you’re prone to believe in magic and why you shouldn’t, because to believe in magic is to attack your own intelligence.

[S]uffering is not essential. It’s just unavoidable. All forms of suffering are bad but some are unavoidable. We need to come to terms with them or be able to bear them. …[Y]ou really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn’t magic.

Happiness is fine as a side effect. It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism. [H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing — the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.

Whisper to me.

“[A]s one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, … moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night,” writes James Wood, in a New Yorker review of a book about secularism.

Like André Comte-Sponville, who, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, celebrates as ‘atheist spirituality’ the experience of Rilkean moments of self-dissolution which allow one to feel the true being of the world and one’s natural place in it, the contributors to The Joy of Secularism (its cover archly done up to resemble The Joy of Cooking) argue that secularism is “not a negative condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised.”

One of Joy‘s contributors, Bruce Robbins, extends Comte-Sponville’s ecstatic immanence, his worship of the earth and of humanity’s habitation upon it, beyond the mystically experiential, arguing that religious fullness – of meaning and value – may be derived from social action. Wood writes:

[Robbins] faults Charles Taylor for assuming that modern secular life “is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness.” Weber’s word for disenchantment, Entzauberung, actually means “the elimination of magic,” but it is a mistake to infer the loss of meaning from the loss of magic. If a malaise besets contemporary life, Robbins writes, it may have been produced not by the march of progress but by the faltering of progress — “by the present’s failure to achieve a level of social justice that the premodern world did not even strive to achieve.”

Here, Robbins, like many secularists, aligns himself with Camus’ existential defiance of meaninglessness through the free, creative, ascription of meaning to a Sisyphean world – a meaning which, founded on the human, and on the love of the human, would inevitably have social justice at its core.

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But Wood points out that all the secular – indeed, all the religious – affirmation and comfort in the world can’t really stop us asking our “tormented metaphysical questions.” (Why is life so short? So inexplicable?) As Adam Phillips, a contributor to the Joys volume, says elsewhere:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail… [T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

Indeed we prove recalcitrant even to the foundational project of spiritual calming, or at least spiritual clarity; we continue to harbor hatred of, and rage at, our stingy, undisclosing world. Wood quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

For one moment she felt that if [she and her companion] both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

Beautiful, joyous, vigorous, wise Mrs. Ramsay must be summoned from the dead to share her wisdom about life, and to tell us why she, so vigorous and good, had to die; yet she stays as silent as the friend Donald Justice addresses in his poem, Invitation to a Ghost:

Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life.

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“The main condition of absurdity,” writes Thomas Nagel in a 1971 essay, The Absurd, “is the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life.” He anticipates the problem with Comte-Sponville’s atheist spirituality: we simply seem constituted toward transcendence, toward the positing and sensing of so much more than this. We try to allow ourselves to be dragooned (a gloriously absurd word, that) back into the limited enterprise of a human life, but we remain unconvinced; as soon as we get there, a collision occurs “between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.” When we’re truly earthbound, our curious but rather impressive “capacity to see ourselves without presuppositions, as arbitrary, idiosyncratic, highly specific occupants of the world, one of countless possible forms of life” is activated.

Hence our absurd predicament: We may have trouble believing in heaven, but we are, most of us, entirely unable to believe exclusively in earth. For us, things seem always to ramify, things are fraught, things are always spiraling outward with transcendent implication. Caught on an earth which ever catches us up, we’re in a predicament, writes Nagel, both “sobering and comic.”

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If there’s not much disentangling absurdity discursively, there’s its aesthetic treatment (hence Wood’s recourse to Woolf), in which this dilemma is staged in ways that elucidate it and reconcile us to it.

In his preface to a selection of Philip Larkin’s poems, Martin Amis attempts to account for Larkin’s status as the best-loved of post World War II British poets. It’s odd that he’s so loved, given his sour – even ugly – personality, and what Amis rightly calls the “militant anti-romanticism” of the poems.

Seamus Heaney’s misgivings are probably representative: Larkin is “daunted” by both life and death; he is “anti-poetic” in spirit; he “demoralises the affirmative impulse.”

Yet of course Larkin, more powerfully than any other poet of his time, places himself precisely in the thick of absurdity; he is the emblematic sober and comic stick in the mud.

His greatest stanzas, for all their unexpectedness, make you feel that a part of your mind was already prepared to receive them – was anxiously awaiting them. They seem ineluctable, or predestined. Larkin, often, is more than memorable. He is instantly unforgettable.

We absorb him like that because he captures our recalcitrance to our projects, and even makes this recalcitrance sing. We recognize ourselves in Larkin’s resigned irony because so often that is exactly where we are. Larkin doesn’t whisper to us beautiful secrets; but he whispers our strange and even somehow beautiful truths.

Thanks to Three Generous UD Readers…

… who regularly link me to items of interest, I’ve got three things — a poem, and two opinion pieces — rattling around my headlet this morning. They all seem to have to do with the humanities, defense of. Let us see if we can organize them in order to make a point or two.

First, here are the items:

1.) A David Brooks column in today’s New York Times.

2.) A Stanley Fish column in the same newspaper.

3.)
A poem by Delmore Schwartz called The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.


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Brooks wants to “stand up for the history, English and art classes,” even though few students are interested in taking them. (Students only get excited about econ and related fields that will make them rich.) The Brooks defense of the humanities rests on this:

… Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.

… Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

… If you’re dumb about The Big Shaggy, you’ll probably get eaten by it.

Here we get the humanities as cautionary tale. Know thyself. If you don’t, you’ll make terrible mistakes in life.

Brooks cites a couple of recent, representative mistake-makers: “[A] governor of South Carolina [who] suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or …a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana [who] risks everything for an in-office affair.”

Who says these were mistakes? Maybe they were true love for all Brooks knows. Was the Tipper/Al marriage a mistake? It failed. Did it fail because they failed to understand the big shaggy?

UD doubts this. She proposes that the Gores understand the big shaggy pretty well.

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We all know people with very highly educated emotional knowledge who are fuckups.

We’re all fuckups of one sort or another, no?

So what if he has led a stupid life? Anyone with any brains knows that he is leading a stupid life even while he is leading it. Anyone with any brains understands that he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind.

Go ahead and disagree with this statement from Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth. I’ll press on.

Here is a comment from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst: “There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. …[T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.”

I mean, this is your emotional knowledge, no? Part of it? Not that you won’t get eaten by the big shaggy, but that you won’t be entirely assimilated into it when it starts chomping? That you might get a little leverage over it, eventually?

In his defense of the humanities, Fish cites Martha Nussbaum.

[Nussbaum writes that] “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”

Here we shift to a humanities defense based not on mental health, but on civic health.

Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.

Nussbaum, like Brooks, defends the humanities as a force toward the creation of an organized and critical mind. I’m with them on this, although I think that some science and social science courses do the same thing. But as with the humanities as a pipeline to better mental health, I’m less convinced by the argument that a deep knowledge of Henry James will make you anything as grand as an intelligent world citizen. I think it’s liable to make you more tolerant and less provincial, because it will make you feel the vulnerability, variety, and complexity of human beings. But I also think that a true immersion into the humanities will make you very cautious about making big claims about outcomes. Many of the meanings we derive from deep humanistic study, after all, are quite disturbing, and even demoralizing.

Remember what William Arrowsmith wrote (I’ve already quoted him on this blog):

[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship… [The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

Note that Arrowsmith’s understanding of the humanities is far more modest than that of Brooks or Nussbaum. For him, a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos (this chaos is what Roth calls stupidity, and Phillips recalcitrance). The form and order of a great poem or a beautiful argument, we come to understand, suffer into being, emerge from the chaos of another consciousness. Which is to say that these accomplished objects, these solid touchstones, are not touchstones at all, but fragile occasional formal gatherings… The form and the order of literature and philosophy, in other words, can be thought of as a thin crust lying atop a deep fault line. We value many literary works precisely to the extent that they manifest the fault, the underlying chaos.

I’ll turn to the Schwartz poem in a moment. Time to post this.

In the Spring, UD’s Thoughts Turn to…

… anything but happiness.

On the matter of happiness, she’s with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst. Here are some Phillips snippets:

Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency and redemption… A culture that is obsessed with happiness must really be in despair, mustn’t it? Otherwise why would anybody be bothered about it at all? It’s become a preoccupation because there’s so much unhappiness. The idea that if you just reiterate the word enough … we’ll all cheer up is preposterous… The cultural demand now is be happy, or enjoy yourself, or succeed. You have to sacrifice your unhappiness and your critique of the values you’re supposed to be taking on. You’re supposed to go: ‘Happiness! Yes, that’s all I want!’ But what about justice or reality or ruthlessness – or whatever my preferred thing is?”

“The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery. There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or a weakness on the part of scientific research and one of these two groups has got to pull its socks up. Scientists have got to get better and find us a drug and the depressed have got to stop malingering. The ethos is: ‘Actually life is wonderful, great – get out there!’ That’s totally unrealistic and it’s bound to fail.”

“Darwinian psychoanalysis would involve helping you to adapt, find a niche and enable you to reproduce. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that there is something over and above this. There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project. That seems to me to be persuasive.”

“One of the things I value about psychoanalysis is that it acknowledges that there are real difficulties in living, being who one’s going to be, and that no one’s going to be having a lobotomy. There isn’t going to be a radical personal change, which doesn’t mean that people can’t change usefully, but really that psychoanalysis is against magic. Ideally it enables you to realise why you’re prone to believe in magic and why you shouldn’t, because to believe in magic is to attack your own intelligence. [S]uffering is not essential. It’s just unavoidable. All forms of suffering are bad but some are unavoidable. We need to come to terms with them or be able to bear them. …[Y]ou really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn’t magic.”

Happiness is fine as a side effect. It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism. [H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing — the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.”

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All of which is why reactions to the decades-long Harvard Grant Study, which followed a group of Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives in terms of their happiness, have been like this:

♦ The lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.”

♦ Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.

♦ Education, marriage, moderate alcohol intake, and exercise are fairly reliable predictors of happiness; so are certain “mature adaptations” taken in responding to challenges, such as maintaining a sense of humor and channeling aggressive feelings into more healthful channels like athletics. As for offering any definitive answer as to how to live the good life, no convenient elixir is forthcoming. To deny the Grant Study its ambitious objective to pinpoint the causes of happiness has a whiff of the wet blanket about it. But there’s something even more miserable about thinking that our happiness can be defined by the jobs we choose, or what we eat for breakfast, or how many miles we run each week. Freud himself pointed out that the only thing normal is pathology, which makes applying a bell-curve-style prescription for joy more than a little reductionist. Even if all the indicators in our lives point to success, a craving for something indefinable may persist.

Here’s an example of how weird, strange, disturbing, and difficult we are:

[P]eople tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day.

In fact, [explains one of the Harvard Grant Study researchers], positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs — protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections — but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Amen, brother. Some of UD‘s most difficult moments in life involve her confrontation with extremely high appraisals of UD.

Don’t get her wrong. She wouldn’t trade these beautiful appreciations — often written as if after lengthy consultations with UD‘s most embarrassingly grandiose narcissistic fantasies about herself — for the world.

But since she knows herself to be much less impressive and much more unpleasant than what she’d like to think she is, part of her responds to beautiful appreciations with fear. “If you only knew,” she wants to say to the writers. “If you only knew, you’d be so bitterly … so vengefully? … disappointed.”

I think that’s why we cross the street.

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