A distinctively 1970s style of elegance: a phone on a long cord that drifts around the room from use to use. C.f. David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971. This painting introduced the 1970s in a book I was given as a child: Century, or something like that—a compilation of major news stories from each month of the twentieth century. Such things were common in the 1990s. Each decade was introduced by a representative artwork; this painting sticks in my mind more than the others. In retrospect I begin to think that the 1970s were more decisive for the world we live in now than the 1960s, whose legacy we still seemed to be working through, at least when I was a teenager.
David gave me one of Berryman’s Dream Songs to read, an elegy for Wallace Stevens, which I haven’t encountered before. I admire it very much, and I basically agree with it. That may be a peculiar thing to say about a poem, but of course there’s a polemical edge to this elegy: it tries to argue something about the kind of poet that Stevens was, just as Auden’s elegy for Yeats argued something about the kind of poet he was. Berryman is saying here that Stevens was not a poet of the vernacular, and with it, of the whole human mess. Stevens’s austere idiom, for all its glories—“He mutter spiffy”—amounts to “a fact of happy world”: something “missing, then, at the man’s heart.” Berryman/Henry calls this the capacity to wound: the accidental harms we do to one another, the squalor we create out of our good intentions. Hence that resounding final judgement: “Brilliant, he seethe; / better than us; less wide.”
Stevens was, as Bloom always insisted, a poet of reduction; the result is that his work can feel brilliantly clear, calm, orderly, and austere: all things that we, most of the time, are not. That is why, I guess, I find the poetry so restorative.
David spoke about D. H. Lawrence’s notion of writing as giving free rein to the writer’s daimon, and the importance of dreaming to the creative life. It was good to think about this at a moment when I happen to be re-reading Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and noting that the distinction he sets out there between Apollonian and Dionysian is not the distinction between the waking world and the dreaming world. The choice is rather between dreaming and intoxication: the Apollonian world, insofar as it is governed by the principle of sufficient reason and the principium individuationis, is a dream, a semblance, the Veil of Maya disguising the basic oneness that can only be experienced as ecstatic, Dionysian intoxication. Lawrence, too, was a reader of Nietzsche.
Sam Hoffenstein’s “The Moist Land,” New York Tribune January 28, 1923
Well that’s a very complicated story. According to Marx, alienation was a socio-economic concept, and it meant, basically—this is a very brutal abrogation—that under capitalism, men and women could not, in their work, fulfilled their own individual, humane faculties and needs; that this was due, to the capitalist mode of production itself, and could only be remedied by radically changing this mode of production. Now today, the concept of alienation has been expanded and extended to such an extent, that this original content is almost entirely lost: an extension all too easy, which I consider not only premature, but also wrong, because, for example, not every kind of trouble, or problem, someone has with his girlfriend or a boyfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production.
Subjecting the manifold to tabulation does not ensure any actual understanding of what lies there before us as thus set in order…
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 77.
Noisy nothing, stalking shade, By what witchcraft wert thou made, Thou empty cause of solid harms? But I shall find out counter charms, Thy airy devilship to remove From this circle here of love.
I’ve obsessed over this song of Henry Purcell’s since tracking it down as the source of the ground for Michael Nyman’s “The Disposition of the Linen” from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982).
The lyrics are drawn from Abraham Cowley’s The Mistress (1656), and contain a conceit more familiar from and better realised in Donne’s earlier Holy Sonnet 16 (1633), that of the heart as a conquered town: “I, like an usurp’d town to another due, / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end.” In Cowley’s rendition, the town is haunted by the ghost of doubt.
What does man really know about himself? Indeed, would he ever be able to perceive himself completely, as if he were laid out in an illuminated glass case? Does nature not keep him in ignorance about most things, even about his own body, in order to detain and lock him up within a proud deceitful consciousness, removed from the coils of the intestines, the rapid flow of the bloodstream, the intricate vibration of the fibres? It has thrown away the key, and woe betide the disastrous curiosity which could one day peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and suspect that man, in the indifference of his ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous, as if he were hanging in his dreams from the back of a tiger.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873),” in Writings from the Early Notebooks, ed. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, trans. Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 253–264.
Nijinsky on the Venetian Lido, painted by Leon Bakst
Another kind of admired body from the recent cultural past: was the muscularity of the male ballet dancer taken for granted, or was it at issue; Bakst’s careful attention to Nijinski’s musculature suggests the latter, especially within the homoerotic confines of the Ballet Russe.
Virgil Solis, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book 1.141-150, The Iron Age
My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms.
Eugen Sandow, 1894, Library of Congress
An irony that Sandow, the father of bodybuilding, who helped legitimise the pursuit of muscle by wrapping it in a classicising rhetoric, now represents an image closer to the widely-desired “aesthetic physique” than most contemporary competitive bodybuilders.
That signal object was the “Handsome Sailor” of the less prosaic time alike of the military and merchant navies. With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the offhand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.
Herman Melville, “Billy Budd,” 1.
Re-reading Skinner and finding, in the published version of his “Genealogy of the State” lecture (British Academy Lectures 2008), certain scruples or provisos of Skinner’s that cast doubt on my prospects for giving, even in a partial and preliminary way, a genealogy of normativity. Chief among these is Skinner’s principle that he will limit himself to the ways “the state” was explicitly spoken about in the tradition he addresses. But “normativity” and “normativeness” only began to be spoken about using these terms during the early twentieth century. But according to my argument, it has been quietly at issue for much longer, just not spoken about in these precise terms, which necessarily give a retrospective account of what modernity has done to our forms of life. Is there space in a Skinnerian outlook for this kind of exploration? Does there need to be, for my purposes?
The thing to do might end up looking like a (better) version of the above: to survey—necessarily selectively—the landscape of ethical thought at the moment these terms started to be used, which is not coincidentally the moment of my literary interests as well.
Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odour that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o’-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. One the other hand one who has a pungent odour often possesses great vitality, energy and vigor of mind.
Hellen Keller, “Sense and Sensibility,” quoted in Anthony Synnott, The Body Social: Symbol, Self and Society (1993), p. 188.
Napier Waller, The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia, 1927.
Before I moved to England, Napier Waller’s murals The Pastoral Pursuits of Australia hung in the Australian wing of the Art Gallery of South Australia, where I would look at them regularly.
Apart from the frank homoeroticism (in the paintings, in my looking, or both), it simply hadn’t before occurred to me before that classical tropes like these could be earnestly mobilised to produce a picture of Australia. But once it did, the dark connotations of these claims to civilisational legitimacy also became apparent.
In England a coincidence ambivalently reminded me of home when I came across a copy of Ana Carden-Coyne’s Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War. It used Waller’s murals on its cover and referred to them in passing: a perfect summation of the book’s thesis.
Why was I reading Richard White’s entry in The Oxford History of the United States, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896 (2017)? Because I was following a thread suggested by George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, which I’m reviewing. That thread is the role of the American establishment in framing the foreign policy of the Cold War era; I have in mind particularly W. Averell Harriman and Robert A. Lovett, two sons of businessmen who parlayed wealth amassed through the railroads into finance, and thence politics.
What interests me here is the seeming rapidity of the generational, psychological shift in those men (for men they all were): the sources of their confidence in stepping out into the world. My sense is that it has much to do with the Westward expansion of the 19th century, which we might see as a kind of rehearsal for empire. These sorts of issues will be canvassed in a couple of other books I need to dip into, Ernest R. May’s American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay (1968), and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire (2019).
In any case, reading White’s introduction I was struck by the following:
Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands, 6.
Abraham Lincoln, the politician whose memory and legacy dominated the Gilded Age, died as this book begins, but he never really vanished. The novelist and critic William Dean Howells captured part of the reason when he reviewed John Hay’s and John Nicolay’s monumental biography of the president in 1890. Howells wrote that “if America means anything at all, it means the sufficiency of the common, the insufficiency of the uncommon.” Lincoln had come to be both the personification of the American common people and the nation’s greatest—and most uncommon—president. Howells thought it was the nation’s common people and common traits that most mattered.
It is peculiar, in the course of following a thread like this, to find myself confronted with the ordinary (the common) yet again, not least in conjunction with Lincoln, a figure I return to over and over. The full context of Howell’s remark is as follows:
William Dean Howell, Editor’s Study, ed. James W. Simpson, pp. 298–9.
Looking back over the whole course of the narrative, the most interesting thing to note is how gradually yet inevitably Lincoln grew to a national proportion, until at his death he stood so completely for his country that without him it may be said that his country would have had no adequate expression. If America means anything at all, it means the sufficiency of the common, the insufficiency of the uncommon. It is the affirmation in political terms of the Christian ideal, which when we shall affirm it in economical and social terms will make us the perfect state; and Lincoln was the earliest, if he is not yet the only American, to realize in his office the divine purport of the mandate, ‘Is any first among you? Let him be your servant.’ He had a just ambition, and a just pride in duty well done, and a just hope of gratitude and recognition; but all these motives sank into abeyance, and may be said not to have governed his action, which was ruled simply by the desire to serve to his best ability the people who had set him over them.
Howell’s line, “If America means anything at all, it means the sufficiency of the common,” could have been written a century later by Stanley Cavell in any of his transcendentalist-inflected meditations on America, reminding us, too, that Lincoln was himself, in some respects, a belated transcendentalist.
Today, reading Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, I was struck by the following passage:
“Revolution of the Ordinary,” 180.
As we have seen, Wittgenstein thinks of utterances as actions, as something we do. If we think of a poem, a play, a novel as a particularly complex action, or intervention, we immediately escape the hold of some of the hermeneutics of suspicion’s most entrenched beliefs. Actions aren’t objects, and they don’t have surfaces or depths. To understand an action isn’t the same thing as to open the lid of a box. Partisans of the “death of the author” thesis forget that actions aren’t divorced from their doers in the same way as objects from their makers. Think of the simplest of actions, such as reaching for a pen, or jumping over a puddle in the road. To understand the action is to understand why I or you do this particular thing, and to grasp the implications of doing it in the particular situation.
Last night, I was reading George Packer’s selection of George Orwell’s narrative essays, Facing Unpleasant Facts; in his introduction, he astutely points to a moment in the essay “A Hanging” as a key to Orwell’s entire virtue as a writer. In it, Orwell describes witnessing a hanging as a policeman in Burma:
“Facing Unpleasant Facts,” 25.
It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth-of-a-second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.
Orwell’s “power of noticing” is precisely the sort of quality that and Ordinary Language Philosophy approach to literature would value, and it’s almost uncanny how Wittgensteinian are the implications Orwell draws out of this moment.