Voices in the Cave of Being
Vision and Analogy
In Yvor Winters’ fine short story, “The Brink of Darkness” (1932), the narrator recalls a solitary and deranging winter out among snow-covered Western hills, during which
I felt that I saw farther and farther into the events about me, that I perceived a new region of significance, even of sensation, extending a short distance behind that of which I had always been aware, suggesting the existence of far more than was even now perceptible.
Near the end,
It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air, underlying everything, as if I might slip suddenly into it at any instant, and as if I held myself where I was by an act of the will from moment to moment.
The story feels like an impeccable transcription of actual events.
During most of the 1920s, Winters himself had been deeply Romantic, hungry to penetrate to and seize the essence of things. And in this he was like earlier American writers like Hawthorne and Melville, and like his contemporary and, for awhile, friend, Hart Crane, all of them driven by a heuristic passion like Hölderlin’s earlier, and Rimbaud’s, and Mallarmé’s
In her 1996 Afterword to her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the great American photgrapher Nan Goldin recalls how:
AIDS altered our lives in every respect. The notion of self-destruction as glamorous became self-indulgent when people around us started dying; that romantic vision of the self-destructive artist, having to suffer or induce pain in order to work, that sense that creativity has to come out of euphoric crisis, or out of extreme excess, changed. With the advent of death in our lives came a real will to survive, and help each other survive, to show up for each other.
She herself had to go into detox, but came out finding that she could still make gorgeous photos.
On the board in front of me are two lists, copied I forget from where. One is the names of twenty-seven American writers who were alcoholics, the other of sixteen who weren’t.
The former includes a lot oif big-bang names—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Neill among them —but I see that the latter begins with Pound, Eliot, Frost, and Stevens.
Sometimes it’s 10% inspiration, 70% perspiration, 20% desperation
There’s a difference, though, between needing liquor to rev you up, and keep your juices flowing, and help you to unwind afterwards, and at times, perhaps, achieve a self-punishing oblivion, and the Sixties-type belief that there’s a superior Reality out there that hallucinogens will give you unmediated access to.
Coleridge (“Mr. Poppy”) achieved the Mariner, Xanadu, Christabel, Frost, the Lime-Tree Bower, and Dejection (too much of that).
Verlaine (“Monsieur Wormwood “) wrote during his fifty-two years the over nine hundred well-made poems in a large variety of forms that are there in the thin-paper Oeuvres poétiques complètes in the Pléiade series.
Not that anyone in his right mind would choose to live Verlaine’s appalling life.
The 1880’s and 1890’s were a heyday of absinthe, industrial-strength tobacco, and other mood-altering substances, as well as of Symbolism.
In Monsieur de Phocas (1901), his sub-pornographic yellow-back reworking of Huysman’s A Rebours, Jean Lorrain demystified the prestigiously “unmentionable” mind-blowing experiences that were hinted at in The Picture of Dorian Grey. particularly in that book of mystico-erotic power that cynical Lord Henry puts into the willing hands of young Dorian.
They boiled down, among Lorrain’s “Decadents”, to the “love that dare not speak its name” (particularly with silken-skinned North African youths), plus opium, hash, and ether.
Lorrain, who died prematurely and horribly from the effects of ether drinking, evidently knew what he was talking about. The circles in which he moved included Robert de Montesquiou, the model for Proust’s Baron Charlus. I don’t recall there being drugs in Proust.
André Breton (no doubt with Baudelaire’s wisdom about what Lautréamont called “the blossoms of drear annihilation bred by opium” in mind) worked out ways of heightening consciousness that didn’t require drugs and didn’t impose an intolerable burden on the isolated individual. Surrealism (his own greatest creative achievement) was a cross-fertilization of multifarious symbol-systems, with room in it for l’Amour.
It was a complex monitoring and steering. Mere revolt (of the Tzara-Dada variety) could become arid. Rimbaud’s prescription of “a long, gigantic, and rational derangement of all the senses” (emphases sic) could destroy you (like Artaud) or render you nugatory if unrelated to creative social action.
You didn’t have to become Rimbaud.
For F.R. Leavis (mutates mutandis, an English Breton in his role as chef-d’école) the way would lie through the heightened, tubercular, flame-like consciousness of D.H. Lawrence; and the poetry of William Blake. Plus the language of Shakespeare.
“I’m not a man who likes books for their own sakes” (Breton). “You won’t find me talking about ‘literary values’” (Leavis—Breton’s senior by a year).
Think of the dreadfulness of a twentieth-century England without Lawrence! Or, for that matter, of ‘English’ without Leavis.
Winters’ sense of the perils of Romanticism was heightened in the later 1920s by his observation of the downward-spiralling career of Hart Crane.
His essay “The Significance of The Bridge, by Hart Crane; or What Are We to Think of Professor X” (in In Defense of Reason) is one of the most important twentieth-century critical texts.
The forty-six pages in Forms of Discovery on “The Post-Symbolist Methods” are his own greatest contribution to the question of how you can have the intensity and individuation sought by Romanticism, without the crash-and-burn.
Thom Gunn said of the book, “I know of no other prose work from which one can learn so much about poetry, how it actually works, what makes it valuable.”
Winters praised, deservedly, the writings of his wife Janet Lewis.
The oils and watercolours of Carol Hoorn Fraser in the 1970s and 1980s, done without benefit of stimulants, and accessible on this site via the homepage, demonstrate what can occur when intensity of vision—an intensification always of real-world elements—goes along with technical mastery, a strong sense of expressive form, and an ongoing concern with more than merely “art” values.
It’s an art that accords with Baudelaire’s statement that the allegorical, when rightly managed, is “a deeply spiritual art form, which…is really one of the primitive and most natural forms of poetry.”
Analogical thinking is one of the most natural forms of thought.
At the linguistic heart of the workings of the Imagination (Romantic-style) was the metaphor.
By a mysterious process of the mind, a new trans-rational nexus was simultaneously perceived and articulated. Something, in terms of the new theorizing, was something else and not merely like it, in contrast to similes, in which the nature of the two parts, and their ontological separateness, was immediately perceptible.
The great I AM modulated into the great IT IS. The procedure would have a long life among symbol-hunting critics, who were liable to inform you, with lectern-gripping earnestness, that the woodspurge in Rossetti’s poem of that name “is” the miracle of the Trinity, or the bread and beer in Rimbaud’s “Romance” “are” the eucharist.
Some people’s antennae must simply quiver whenever they see the word “three.”
This kind of allegorizing is only possible when you’re viewing a poem from the outside as an enclosure from which you can pick and choose elements as you wish, creating your own supposedly organic wholes of recombined opposites.
It’s a process entirely at odds with the experience of recording a poem. You cannot simultaneously commit yourself to the “given” feeling that is emerging as word follows word and also be off in a much more abstract and formless Elsewhere.
For a bit more about the epistemological problems involved, see “Powers of Style,” XL–XLII
The kind of person who thinks you’re injecting significance into a poem by detecting buried religious symbolism is getting things the wrong way round. Religious symbols, Christian ones at least, acquired their significance in the first place because they arose from “ordinary” real-world, experiences.
Bread and wine, those primary nurturing presences, fruits of the earth and of patient human labours, were shared on a famous occasion at a feast in the shadow of impending doom.
Virginia Woolf gives us, marvelously, the feast (just an “ordinary” family dinner during a summer vacation) in To the Lighthouse. Nan Goldin, greatest American-based photographer since Robert Frank, catches elemental energies in her water’s-edge, sur-l’herbe, “Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston.”
Muddling up “concrete” situations in good poems by introducing cliché religious symbols does neither zone of being any good.
A reductio ad absurdum of religiosticism was Stanley Fish’s self-congratulatory “experiment” with the blackboard “poem” that I comment on in “Referentiality.” His students’ baroque allegorizings of the list of names of scholars left up there from a previous class presumably derived from his own teaching practices—though no doubt, on the part of some of the brighter participants, done tongue-in-cheek, the ironist ironized. Fish doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour.
A sense of humour, like a feeling for metaphors, involves perceiving analogies—behavioural analogies.
In general, poets are no more anxious to hide their symbolizing than are the devisers of ads in which SUV’s glide effortlessly through lush unpeopled valleys.
When Blake writes,
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy,”
you may not know for sure what is going on in the transaction between rose and worm, but you do know, after the third line, that this isn’t a poem about gardening.
Metaphors, as Paul de Man knew in his quarrel with the East Coast New Critical mandarins, are still essentially comparisons, a subset in the general field of analogical thinking.
Metaphors and metonymy precede similes and perform some of their functions. When one dawn-of-humanity hunter points derisively at another after the group kill and makes a yipping noise like a jackal, he isn’t saying that his fellow “is” a jackal, or drawing attention to the shape of his head. He’s implying that the latter hung back while others took the risks and made the kill, and now hopes to get some of the meat.
If you probe someone’s remark that a colleague has a chip on his shoulder, you come up with a comparison with that boyhood ritual in the rural American past when a kid would put a chip of wood on his shoulder and dare another one to knock it off and precipitate a brawl. Which would be different, in its implication of immaturity, from saying that someone was too quick to throw down the gauntlet.
Behind Lady Macbeth’s exhortation to “screw your courage to the sticking-place” lies the cranking up of a crossbow. And when Macduff cries out, “What! all my pretty chickens and their dam/ At one fell swoop,” he has seen in his mind’s eye a destruction as swift and deadly as the plunge of the falcon on its prey.
Idiomatic sayings like “There’s many a slip ‘twist cup and lip,” and “A cat may look at a king” were ways of coping analogically with situations that were too complex for the speaker to handle analytically. Collectively they were, and to some extent still are, so-called folk-wisdom.
Personally I find “literary” formulations (“To be or not to be,” and so on) coming to my mind fairly often in real-life situations.
As they evidently did for T.S. Eliot during his troubled Waste Land years.
If metaphors and other figures of speech can be made to seem linguistically anomalous and in need of explanation, it is by dint of positing so-called rational and literal speech as the norm, rather than seeing it for what it is, a late evolutionary growth, whether in the individual or in a society.
Figurative language is the oldest form of speech, and the most enduring. Here is a Welsh miner on tape from thirty or forty years ago:
The curse of underground is the dust. Dust is the giant-killer, but it doesn’t strike all at once but he likes his time. And he do takes his time, and he stealthily walks into your human system; into your lungs.… He is the real enemy, so minute in its form, and yet so strong in its ravaging powers.
He didn’t have to study Shakespeare in order to learn that. Shakespeare studied him, or his ancestors.
Or at least there had been a complex process wherein the English of the King James Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, itself partly deriving from the idioms and rhythms of English “common” speech, remained an expressive presence in the lives of some of the working people.
The mystification of analogical speech by philosophers is like what would happen if someone with no sense of bodily rhythms were puzzled by the activity called dancing and had to postulate a mysterious faculty to explain it, since obviously it was a most unnatural and inefficient mode of locomotion.
Logan Pearsall Smith’s English Idioms is still very relevant.
You can “see” our primitive ancestors back in the mists or forests of time defining themselves and their behaviours and characteristics in terms of the physical.
Someone’s angry and you laugh and say, or grunt, or make whatever signifying gesture gives you “storm.”
A kid is scared and another mimes the movements of a jackal, the movements and signings of animals (their own observable signifyings of fear, anger, deference, and so forth) being simpler and more definite, like their physical forms, than human ones. More, you might say, “symbolic.”
A young hunter is habitually brave and he becomes (is named) Lion. A nurturing generous-spirited girl becomes Spring (the liquid kind).
Yeats asked for his baby daughter, “May she become a flourishing hidden tree.” André Breton named his baby daughter “Aube” (Dawn)
Of course figurative language can create mysteries.
There’s no problem, for hearers familiar with the physical referents, the rapid succession of comparisons in Macbeth’s great soliloquy upon hearing of his wife’s death, when “brief candle” is followed by “walking shadow,” which is followed by “poor player,” which is followed in its turn by “a tale told by an idiot.”
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
You can see the analogy-making or -finding process at work—the instantaneous sense of an extinguished candle, just the candle, no fingers
—and then the somewhat fuller “scene” of light (candle?) and a moving shadow (without mention of the implied wall).
—and then the sense of movement in the shadow generating the fuller and more detailed image (figure against background) of the on-stage actor, a bad one, with hammy gestures.
Which leads to the still more individuated image (via the words of the actor) of an idiot (the peripatetic village kind) angrily and intently, no doubt with flashing eyes, and desperately working mouth, and gesturing hands, trying to describe something in speech that’s without meaning, at least to the auditor.
It’s almost like a series of potential haiku, isn’t it—candle, shadow, actor, idiot? And none of the allusions is in any way exhausted, or used up, in the sense now you’ve got all that there is to be got in it, like squeezing the juice from an orange. Candles, shadows, actors, idiots go on being complex themselves.
Trouble comes when the sense of the physical has been lost and someone says, “Let’s try and dig into our viewpoints and see if we can’t fuse them,” and you’re trying to sense something coherently physical and can’t (a literal “viewpoint,” as on a hill, being the point from which you view a scene).
Or when analogies are so personal and ad hoc that you don’t have time, as you speak your way through the poem, to have the point of the comparison emerge.
As happens in Hart Crane’s “Melville’s Tomb,” the title an obvious allusion to Mallarmé’s “Tomb” poems for Baudelaire, Poe, and Verlaine. (“Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge/The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath/ An embassy,”” etc.).
Or when, as in Wallace Stevens’ “Valley Candle,” a self-consistent scene is being evoked and yet it is strange.
My candle burned alone in an immense valley
Beams of the huge night converged upon it
Until the wind blew
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image
Until the wind blew.
You can indeed be in an immense valley and light a candle, and it can seem as if the dark’s coming into the light rather than the light going out into the dark, and the wind can blow out the candle, and there can be an after-image.
But did it happen that way (it was his) candle? Or are we into a different kind of space, a space of the mind, and if so, what is going on?
It’s mysterious, that immense unpeopled valley, no other lights anywhere, and the candle itself (like the jar in Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”) feels close-up big in the mind’s eyes—as big in scale, almost, as the spectrally sensed valley (known by daylight presumably) and the dark of the extending and maybe starless, moonless night.
So I suppose we’re into some kind of allegory about the workings of the imagination, the human imagination, the creative imagination, even perhaps the Fichtean/Coleridgean one (though I’d prefer not to think so)—the recreating non-literally (in memory? in words?) of something, some perception, that was itself a transformation of “merely” physical and over-familiar elements (a candle is a candle is a candle, I’ll take half a dozen, please).
And it’s beautiful and mysterious and dreamlike, and brief—a sort of expanded and intricate haiku
But it is still analogical, unless you want to say, well, he’s a Poet, so it did happen that way, particularly if you surrender to the power of the poem’s definiteness, its verb-driven physical robustness (“burned,” “converged,” “blew)”, and that’s how things are with the workings of the mind, since he says that’s how they are, and he must have seen it, and it must have been there for him to see.
We’re deep into Symbolist territory here. For what made a good many poems Symbolist was not that they were strings of separate symbols like Hippy necklaces, but that a complex evocation of the physical was going on in order to evoke a state of mind, of perception, of being that couldn’t be spelled out literally without losing its being.
As happens here in Stevens’ poem, where I hope that students aren’t being asked, “And what does the night symbolize, class? And what does the wind symbolize?”
And you have to hang on for the Symbolist ride and see what kinds of invocations are going on and what the nature of the difficulties are, if any. (Personally I don’t understand “Valley Candle,” but it spoke clearly enough to Carol for her to include it in the 1977 catalogue of her ten-year retrospective. Stevens was her favourite poet.
Here are three examples of Symbolist elusiveness.
Mallarme’s “Le Pitre Châtié” (The Punished Clown) opens with “Yeux, lacs avec ma simple ivresse de renaître ”—dictionarily, “Eyes, lakes, with my simple drunkenness/frenzy/enthusiasm to be reborn.”
And you don’t know where the hell you are, in the absence of any syntactical connection between eyes and lakes. In fact there’s a positive thwarting of a connection by that “avec,” as if something had already been said about them.
Yeux, lacs avec ma simple ivresse de renaître
Autre que l’histrian qui du geste évoquais
Comme plume la suie ignoble des quinquets,
J’ai troué dans le mur de toile une fenêtre.
However, an earlier draft begins (aha!) “Pour tes yeux—pour nager dans ces lacs” (“For your eyes—to swim in those lakes”), and we’re off into an allegorical account of his being like a clown who has quit the smoky circus booth to go swimming in a clear cold pool and dry himself in the sun, not realizing that the abandoned costume and washed-off make-up were inseparably part of his genius.
Pour ses yeux,—pour nager dans ces lacs, dont les quais
Sont plantés de beaux cils qu’un matin bleu pénêtre,
J’ai, Muse,—moi, ton pitre,—enjambé la fenêtre
Et fui notre baraque où fument tes quinquets.
For her eyes—to swim in those lakes whose banks
Are planted with lovely lashes which a blue morning pierces,
I, Muse—I, your clown—have leaped through the window
And fled our booth where your lamps are smoking.
So what had gone on was that Mallarmé, in his revision, had been removing connections and creating a new kind of fragmented and explosive poetic energy, with things half glimpsed and more intense.
Later, “Hilare or de cymbale” (“Hilarious cymbal gold”), with its fusion of mood, colour, sound, and tactility, gives us the impact of the sun on his naked body.
It is a poem of difficult compressions, particularly the bit in the second quatrain about “disowning/repudiating the bad/ Hamlet! as if in the water I was creating/ A thousand sepulchers to disappear there as a virgin.”
De ma jambe et des bras limpide nageur traître,
A bonds multipliés, reniant le mauvais
Hamlet! C’est comme si dans l’onde j’innovais
Mille sépulchres pour y vierge disparaître.”)
But the poem works because the physical is still there, heightened and intensified, not blurred and blended.
We can feel the energy of the swimmer escaping emotionally from a Hamlet-like indecisiveness, thrusting his arms into the water as if digging his way into a space where he can escape into a new purity and die away from his earlier self (with hints, perhaps, of a ruthlessness towards an Ophelia-like woman).
And it’s not as if the earlier draft were merely tidy and cerebral, the commenting mind dealing logically, French-fashion, with images drawn from a familiar physical world of lakes, clowns, tents, and so forth.
It too is strongly physical in its evocation of water, and sun, and the newly naked body.
And tents and clowns and their costumes and make-up aren’t in fact all that everyday.
And there is a driving energy to the affirmation of his need as creator for the artifice and dirt (the smoking lamps) and egotism that he had felt he could dispense with in his self-transcending worship of a “pure” woman.
Next, Rimbaud’s marvelous poem “Larme.” (“Drop”), which Claire McAllister glosses in her translation as meaning also a drop to drink.
Loin des oiseaux, des troupeaux, des villageoises,
Je buvais, accroupi dans quelques bruy¡ere
Entourée de tenders bois de boisetiers,
Par un brouillard d’après-midi tiède et vert.
Que pouvais-je boire dan cette jeune Oise,
Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert
Que tirais-je à la gourde de colocase?
Qelque liqueur d’or, fade et qui fait suer.
Tel, j’eusse été mauvaise enseigne d’auberge.
Puis l’orage changea le ciel, jusqu’au soir.
Ce furent des pays noirs, des lacs, des perches,
Des colonnades sous la nuit bleu, des gares.
L’eau des bois se perdait sur des sales vierges.
Le vent, du ciel, jetait des glaçons aux mares…
Or! Tel qu’un pecheur d’or ou de coquillages,
Dire que je n’ai eu souci de boire!
He’s there crouching (accroupi) in some heather, or on “some” (quelque) heath, among young hazelnut bushes or trees, in a warm afternoon mist.
But where? He’s “Loin des oiseaux, des troupeuax, des villageoises”. But is it “far from birds, flocks/herds, village girls” in general? or “Far from the birds, the herds/flocks, the village girls,” meaning ones that he’s seen already?
And those birds are a bit odd. Village girls are site-specific, but there can be birds anywhere, so why shouldn’t they be here too? Unless he means farm birds or the birds you get over ploughed land.
Then we have a stanza about drinking that I won’t even attempt to gloss, but which contains the magnificent line, “Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert” (“Voiceless elms, flowerless grass, overcast sky”)
And then we have a marvellous stanza of rapid jumps:
Tel, j’eusse été mauvaise enseigne d’auberge.
Puis l’orage changea le ciel jusqu’au soir.
Ce furent des pays nuits, des lacs, des perches,
Des colonnades dans la nuit bleue, des gares.
He’d have made a bad inn sign (the way he looked while drinking?). Then the storm changes the sky (how?) until evening. And then we have the mind moving abruptly (via the darkness of the storm clouds?) out into the spaces of the third and fourth lines, with the dramatic contrast between the long evocative phrase about the colonnades and the terse “des gares.”
But what spaces?
For me, it was a partly industrialized landscape (as in England’s so-called Black Country in the Midlands), which is to say, not merely pastoral but with a mix of lakes, and odd poles sticking up, maybe on little rickety jetties, maybe for mooring, and then we’re deeper into the industrial or urban part, with almost Chirico-like colonnades (plural) somewhere, and railway stations.
But I see that in three translations we have, variously,
It was out of the black country, country of lakes and of poles,
Of colonnades under the blue night, and of mooring-places.
These were dark lands, lakes and poles,
Colonnades beneath the blue night, harbors.
It was black countries, lakes, [long] poles,
Colonnades under the blue night, railway stations.
So since there’s no way of conflating mooring places (sort of small, given those poles), harbours, and railway stations, it would appear that Rimbaud was using, without guiding the reader, one of those pluri-signifying words, “gare,” that the dictionary will unpack for you, plus a simple-seeming word, “perches,” that leaves you having to figure out what kinds of poles but gives you a “pole” feeling (things sticking up in that darkened landscape), plus the seemingly fuller “colonnades” that leaves you having to hunt again in your mind for what kind they would be.
So there’s an extra mysteriousness there, over and above where and how he’s drinking (or perhaps not drinking; the final stanza is also difficult in the way the second is).
But even if the difficulties were cleared up (if you did research and found what part of northern France and Belgium Rimbaud passed through and what he might have seen there), the movement in the stanza would still be mysterious, because you still don’t know the thought processes leading from that inn sign to those other things.
And you have the feeling of those details in the landscape being so clear in his mind’s eye as to need no contextualizing.
Winters rightly (and admiringly) called the poem hallucinatory.
Lastly, one of the old Verlaine favourites, and none the worse for that.
We have here a precision of external detail, and the feel of things, and virtually no analysis of his “inner” feelings, and yet we’re perfectly happy with that, at least I am, since some moods may not in fact be susceptible of easy description and classification.
Poems, like fictional characters (Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes) can give us epitomes.
If Baudelaire’s “Hymne” gives us adoration, and Rimbaud’s “Au Cabaret-Vert” an innocent contentment, Verlaine in “Dans l’Interminable Ennui” gives us —well, you decide. It’s a brilliant poem.
Ennui de la plaine,
La neige incertaine
Luit comme du sable.
Le ciel est de cuivre
Sans lueur aucune.
On croirait voir vivre
Et mourir la lune.
Comme des nuées
Flottent gris les chênes
Des forêts prochaines
Parmi les bués.
Le ciel est de cuivre
Sans lueur aucune.
On croirait voir vivre
Et mourir la lune.
Et vous, les loups maigres,
Par ces bises aigres
Quoi donc vous arrives?
Ennui de la plaine,
La neige incertaine
Luit comme du sable.
Here it is in Muriel Kittell’s excellent translation:
In the unending
Tedium of the plain
The uncertain snow
Gleams like sand.
The copper sky
Has no light at all
You think you can see
The moon live and die.
Like clouds the oaks
Of nearby forests
Are gray, and float
Among the mists.
The copper sky
Has no light at all.
You think you can see
The moon live and die.
And you, gaunt wolves,
What happens to you
In these harsh winds?
In the unending
Tedium of the plain
The indistinct snow
Gleams like sand.
So the tectonic shift that I talked about in “Powers of Style” didn’t in the least preclude the mysterious, the elusive, the not easily definable in poetry. It was not a banalization of experience, particularly not the kind that comes with the repeated assertion that our world is an affair of texts and fiction.
On the contrary, it much enlarged the means of defining complex experiences.
Eliot was able to reconfigure at least some aspects of Christianity to his own satisfaction, Yeats found room enough for the pagan supernatural, and Rilke and Stevens went off into dimensions where I myself am largely incapable of following them with understanding.
But there’s a differences, as E.M. Forster pointed out in A Passage to India, between mysteries and muddles.
Beware the kind of “difficult” poem where the author, incited perhaps by an imperfect acquaintance with the masterpieces of the French Symbolist movement, evidently believes that he/she has something profound to say about major topics and that it must be said in a programmatically difficult way.
Some teacher-critics have probably had a lot to answer for.
Winters’ discussion in Forms of Discovery of what he calls Post-Symbolist methods is major. He shows how a coherent, heuristic, thinking-through can go on in a poem, a thinking-through in which formal features and the sharpness of sensory detail that we have in some of the best Symbolist poetry are essential elements, not just the adornments of a tacit thesis-statement.
The poetry of some of his own students and associates as displayed in the later pages of his and Kenneth Fields’ anthology Quest for Reality, has an intellectual weight and intensity that had been absent from English-language poetry since the seventeenth century, and the absence of which is all the more noticeable when you look at what was going on in the nineteenth century in French poetry
Winters never said that you have to be making rational statements in poems. He said that what you say ought to be rationally defensible.
To try to cope in a rationally defensible fashion with “unreasonable” matters need by no means entail being (“neo-classically”) without strong feelings. You may in fact be feeling more intensely, more appropriately, and with more possibilities of growth, in part because of a greater consciousness of the potential seriousness of error.
A word or two, in closing, about “genius,” with the aid of some non-literary examples.
Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin whiled away the tedium of the steppes playing French billiards, on a table without pockets, an interminable affair of canons.
But the perfect game, the table game of all table games, is snooker, for in it an almost uniquely, difficult perfection is possible. Sink all the balls in the complicated perfect order and you can, very rarely indeed, only the masters can do it, achieve the perfect maximum score of 147 points.
In a snooker break, there can be no relaxing. An initial success does not guarantee a subsequent one, and each stroke must be concentrated on afresh as if the player had never sunk a previous ball. The effect is cumulative and increasingly impressive, as each ball goes down. But the pattern can be broken at any point.
And part of the thrill of a great snooker break, like that of a prodigious juggling act, is the recognition that at every point, right up to the end, a slip, or a less than perfect move, is always possible.
A knowledgeable commentator, himself a championship player, opined a few years ago that Stephen Hendry was the greatest snooker player ever. You could see why.
Hendry in his prime was simply the consummate compleat player. Not only did he make his own long marvelous breaks. He was totally unfazed by what his opponents did, even when (like Jimmy White) they might be making long breaks themselves or winning several games in a row while he himself sat and watched impassively, simply each time taking up his cue when it was his own turn and observing how the configuration was at that point, and playing accordingly. A total Zen-like concentration.
Maybe golf aficionados feel the same way about Tiger Woods?
I am of course inferring what had to have been happening from what did happen. I have never heard Hendry say anything onscreen about his “thinking” while playing.
For that matter, I don’t recall hearing any other snooker player do so either, and a very good thing too. The top players have their own styles, but snooker, in contrast to tennis, is not a game for demonstrations of temperament or personality, and self-consciousness is what loses you a game when you become too aware of how much rests on a single shot, like a single putt in golf.
But it’s a bit like those comments of Kafka’s about the airshow that I quote in “Lagniappe.” Hendry, like Bleriot, performed perfectly, but when the word “genius” sprang to my lips, it was when (all this on TV, of course) I was watching the young newcomer Ronnie O’Sullivan, playing I forget whom, but at any rate someone very good.
Ronnie cleared the table for the maximum, and he did it effortlessly, so impatient to make the next stroke that he could barely wait until the referee had replaced a coloured ball (the reds not yet all sunk) back on its prescribed spot. He scarcely seemed to be aiming. It was as if he simply took for granted that he could make any shot that he tried for, and was following a vision in his mind’s eye of how the sequence had to go—not necessarily a clear sharp image from the outset, but an intuitive sense of relationships and sequences.
It was extraordinary, and it looked effortless, and I think it was. He was insouciant. He wasn’t being arrogant, he was simply doing what was there in front of him.
Names like Mozart and Rimbaud came to mind. He was young. And I knew nothing about him, hadn’t heard his name, hadn’t seen him play before.
Checking in Google, I see that “he has completed six maximums, including the five fastest of all time.” Maybe the one I watched was the miracle one in 1997 in 320 seconds?
But what was implied there when I thought “genius”?
Well, I did indeed, watching that match, wonder whether there was now a newcomer in town who was going to surpass all the other players for the next few years . Which is to say keep doing those prodigious things.
But it was the things that were prodigious, in that particular match. So I suppose the accurate thing to have said was not that he was a genius, but that it was a performance of genius, that he “showed” genius, and that he was probably going to go on like this, a new grand master of a beautiful game.
Like Joe Montana in American pro football. Like Tiger Woods.
And I think that the same, mutatis mutandis, is true of the artst.
So far as I can see, what we’re talking about when we say genius is someone brilliantly doing something very difficult and very worth doing, and which stays good regardless of what comes after it, since it cannot be transcended, and which is beyond the capacity of the merely excellent.
The achievement may be all the more remarkable because of the youth of the artist (Rimbaud, Lautréamont), or the brevity of the creative career (Hölderlin), or the lack of trial runs (Wuthering Heights), or the sustained imaginative energy and courage required for its completion (Moby Dick, War and Peace, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), or the ongoing sequence of different masterpieces (Shakespeare). But it isn’t those things that make the work remarkable.
And given the notorious fluctuations in creative careers, the fallings away after an initial flair (Bix Beiderbecke, Orson Welles), and the unevenness of individual works (Dickens), it may be natural to say of someone consistently remarkable (Leonardo, Bach) that he or she was a genius. But this isn’t to attribute to them a different kind of knowledge and perception, any more than a Ronnie O’Sullivan or a Stephen Hendry are different in kind from you and me knocking balls around in a local pool hall.
What they’re different in is quality. At times even a tyro can make a shot that surprises him and his opponent equally.
Winters cut through a lot of obfuscation when he suggested in the introduction to Forms of Disovery that “Beauty is merely a term denoting exceptional excellence of one kind or another, and it usually involves the idea of pleasing proportions.” The knowledgeable can talk about beautiful equations, and beautiful battles, and beautiful knock-outs in boxing, and beautiful shots in snooker.
The right formulation seems to me to be to speak of works, and acts, and individuals (meaning their acts) of genius.
So that as well as saying, if you wish to, that Macbeth is a work of genius, you can also speak of military campaigns of genius, and jazz singers of genius (Billie Holiday), and feats of navigation of genius (Captain Bligh cast adrift after the mutiny), and sheep-dog trainers of genius.
None of which entails being always good, as if by some kind of divine fiat. Or remarkable outside your area(s) of competence.
Somewhere or other, Ezra Pound quotes or paraphrases Aristotle to the effect that an exact perception of resemblances is a hallmark of genius. Insofar as there might be a common denominator in creative intelligence at any level, rather than simply a Wittgensteinian “family” of partly overlapping traits, it might be that.
It is what we see, certainly, when the 18th-century playwright Sheridan as a Member of Parliament enquired drily, one Irishman to another, after Edmund Burke had hurled a dagger onto the floor of the House at the close of a peroration, “Where’s the fork?” Or when it first occurred to someone that such utterly different things as the starlings on your lawn and some of the dinosaurs of prehistory might be kin.
Or when Shakespeare went on generating metaphor after metaphor that entered and stayed in the language because of their usefulness and not because they were by Him—a tower of strength, at one fell swoop, with bated breath, the seamy side, and so on. (Logan Pearsall lists eighty-seven familiar idioms that come from the plays.
Personally I think that the word “genius” is of very little use, except as a kind of glorified “Wow!” Its use doesn’t make individual works any better, and sometimes cheapens them.
Almost the only time when I manifestly annoyed Carol Hoorn Fraser in connection with her art was when in the early Sixties I looked at some painting of hers and exclaimed she was a genius. “Don’t say that,” she snapped.
I think she probably meant that in art the term should be reserved for her revered Van Gogh and Rembrandt and a handful of others. But she may also have felt, correctly, that it diminished the long and arduous apprenticeship that she was still serving, and the struggles that she was still having with individual works.
And when the word is taken to mean (analogously to deciding that a particular bar of metal is beryllium) that there’s a consistency throughout the “mind” of this or that writer or artist, so that anything they do will be distinguished and anything they say will be worth attending to, it can only do harm, being wildly out of accord with the observable facts, blurring the perception of differences between and inside individual works, and inviting a profitless game of pigeonholing
It encourages authoritarianism and subservience.
The American craving for sages, whether Emerson, or Einstein, or Derrida, whose every word can be hung onto because of their privileged insights is understandable.
It’s an attempt to ground values when you don’t have a secure religious faith the way that Catholicism used to be, or a set of social structures and observances that are simply taken for granted.
But attitudes can be understandable and wrong. In fact, wrong beliefs are usually more understandable ones. (Of course the sun rises in the morning and goes down at night.)
As we have all heard a good deal by now, seers and sages are chronically vulnerable as generators of texts, since no one sermon or edict or versified utterance carries with it an authenticating seal.
In some shelf of some hexagon [Borges is speaking of his imagined honeycomb-like Library of Babel], there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest…; some librarian has perused it, and it is analogous to a god. …How to locate the secret hexagon which harbored it? Someone proposed a regressive approach: in order to locate book A, first consult book B which will indicate the location of A; in order to locate book B, first consult book C, and so on ad infinitum.…[ellipses sic]
As Borges also knew, if you despair of the possibility of perfect knowledge and the right courses of action that it can ensure, relieving you of the at times intolerable burden of repeated moral choices in situations that aren’t covered precisely by formulae, you may give up on the idea of accurate perception and reasoning in general, and lapse into a nihilistic subjectivism, whether “existentially” gloomy or complacently hedonistic.
And besides, are there any geniuses in 20th-century American literature? Personally I can’t think of one, unless you allow Edith Sitwell’s characterization of the 21-year-old Eliot, author already of “Portrait of a Lady,” as “this youth of genius.”
It’s genies, not genius, that you find in bottles.
But a good deal of true knowledge can in fact be obtained by a discriminating use of intelligence. Including where poetry is concerned.