Archive | August, 2011

TRAUMA and VOICE

18 Aug

Trauma & Voice
A case can be made that the most compelling fictions are records of trauma. This seems to be true of Greek mythology and its tales, as collected by Ovid for example. Incest, rape, intra-family murders and cannibalism transform shape and condition. The gods manage this system of self re-presentation and transfiguration. The idealism of the Greeks, and perhaps of the West, is derived from trauma.

Nietzsche suggested this cultural dynamic, this culture-specific psychology (a word that, after all, is coined from Greek by a Hellenizing strain in the West; by the pressure on its Hebrew DNA to Hellenize) may have been the dominant force in Hellenic poiesis. Initiating the period of his greatest works, he proposes that “the Greeks every more powerful demand for beauty, for festivals, entertainments, new cults really grew from a lack, from deprivation, from melancholy, from pain.” The increasing “demand for beauty” or idealization generated by a culture wed to transfiguration of the self via an idyllic image is a dynamic and tragic process that consumes the host culture or individual. I term this process “image-work” and its phases from idyll to apocalypse to elegy is similar to the concept of “second” or belated “religiousness” or a return to primitive or alien cults by a culture declining into civilization and petrified forms of value and behavior. The dominance of institutions, of bureaucracy, administration and management over personal, spontaneous or emotive or local modes of intercourse is a sign of what Spengler termed “the great petrifact,” the Urban Metropolis that absorbs the life of a people by fusing finance with the will to power. This principle is embodied in the structure of the National Security Council with its chilling name and function.

Like growing old, the development of civilization, at least in the Western world (a pseudomorphosis of Hebraic and Hellenic material in European ‘Christian’ forms) is a trauma that produces increasing verbiage, imagery and a confessional mode of discourse, first in the great forms of art (beginning with the Romantic period, when the apocalyptic phase of Western development began to generate an increasing elegiac mode), then in the degraded forms of popular culture, a decadent reversion to primitive cults. Thus Romantic neo-Gothicism with its mystique of imagination-terror-transfiguration has devolved into a ‘War on Terror’ and the pervasive terror of technological suppression and displacement of the human. During these two centuries the elegiac mode increasingly dominates Western idealization. Its pre-eminence was marked by the nearly simultaneous creation – writing of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King with its motif that “the realm reels back into the beast” and Wagner’s Ring Cycle during the quarter century that saw the upsurge of the Early Modern Period and Symbolism. “This strange disease of modern life” with its “half-believers in …casual creeds,” “its sick hurry,” frenzied selling and frozen false smiles exposing the inauthenticity of a culture whose individuals feel, if they do not understand, their profound alienation and distance from the (debased) ideals and glittering images by which they seek to construct their personae and lives.

This ongoing trauma of the ossifying old age of the West, a Culture that is passing into the last stage of Civilization before shedding its husk to emerge as a global mass directed by a predatory oligarchic mantis is bracketed by three great works of literature. With astonishing precision the Culture formed individuals whose developing potential disgorged them in almost exactly eighty-two year intervals: Mary Shelley, scion of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, working with her husband, Percy wrote Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (first edition 1818). A second masterwork of traumatized Voice speaking out of the darkness and demanding to be heard (“mine is the voice that will not be silenced” says Marlow in “the heavy night air of the river”) is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900) which exposes the metaphysical identity and shared historical fate of the Congo and the Thames, the jungle and London, “a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” And Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (1982), a dream-like narrative of an aging magistrate schooled in the traditional values of a mature Culture of Art, History, courtesy and restraint caught between the pastoral Barbarians and the ‘new men’ of the late Empire, inwardly hollow, flashy and sadistic in their need literally to stamp or inscribe the power of their administrative machine on others and destroying the machine, peace and history in the process. All are novels of savage regression and intentional brutality with decreasing levels of justification for the pain they dramatize. Coetzee’s novel, the last of the three consists largely of the mutually unintelligible affair of the Magistrate and the tortured barbarian young woman whom he tries to heal in a ceremony of sexuality and fertility in desuetude. The magistrate’s inability to ‘see’ (understand) the young woman from an alien and primitive culture is a correlative of her physical inability to see the center of things after the suave sadists of “The Third Bureau of the Civil Guard” probe the limits of her humanity in seeking “the tone of truth,” their term for an outcome-based politically correct answer. The answer in this case is that the Barbarians are preparing a concerted attack on the frontier, an image of the periodic hysteria of an Empire in senescence needing to jazz itself into occasional aggression to persuade its younger members of its identity as a Power. This is all that remains of its authenticity: lies and aggressive, wasteful delusions in the name of “truth” that has become a synonym for torment. Its “tone of truth” is terror. The ‘defensive’ action is suicidal and impoverishing and the trauma pervades every level of the action.

There are other major works that fit the paradigm of a relentless narrative Voice telling and re-telling an experience traumatic largely in its incomprehensibility. The original work in this socio-cultural aesthetic likely is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge (1797) at the beginning of the Romantic period. This poem remains a classic, perhaps the classic in its genre of regret and compulsive confession and the clearest in basing itself on the archetype, itself an image constructed by Europe to ‘justify’ its narrative of the disbelieving Jew, the wandering “Achasuerus.” All the narrators of trauma tales have journeyed into a place, situational and /or physical that shakes the structure of their understanding, abilities and will. It is notable that Percy Shelley, the paradigmatic Romantic poet, philosopher and person had from his youth and earliest writings a strong identification with the Wandering Jew, the alienated outsider by whom and by displacing and punishing whom the dominant culture maintains its mythos. This myth is a cult of trauma in which ‘God dies’ and is transfigured, in which the traumatic tragedy of the Greeks undergoes a shotgun wedding to the Hebraic understanding of history as a pattern of providential salvation inscribed in creation. The interplay, opposition and balance of Hebraic inscription to Greek imagery, representation and transfiguration form the nexus around which the dynamics of the West formed and have developed.

Shelley’s “Lines on the Medusa of Leonardo” and Kafka’s “The Penal Colony” as well as Coetzee’s novel and aggressively imagist poems like Yeats’ “Byzantium” are core texts for examining this interplay. Waiting for the Barbarians to a large extent is an excursus on Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and its verse, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The cultist Yeats has an ambivalence toward the rough beast, a Sphinx “with gaze blank and pitiless as the Sun” while Coetzee, at the end of the elegiac phase and its postmodern chill stares with fascinated horror at the new age.

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Dialectic Structure of Heresy

15 Aug

In this site’s first post I described the dynamic, three-part phases of image-work: the idyllic phase in which a new identity is imagined or conceived (the process is loaded with Eros); the apocalyptic stage when the image-ideal separates increasingly from its generating host individual or culture, draws power from it, possesses and displaces it creating a state now termed ‘virtual reality’; an elegiac phase in which the exhaustion, petrifaction or collapse of the generating host, the Narcissus or Christabel figure is mourned by its diminished self or its survivors. This last phase often leads to a new stage of idealization. Continue reading

The Last Stage of Image-Work: Petrifaction

9 Aug

Consider this remarkable passage that describes the tipping point when a Culture, its forms and traditions worn out, parodies of themselves, ossifies into Civilization:
“Where the Civilization develops into full bloom stands the Cosmopolis, the great petrifact, a symbol of the formless, vast, splendid and spreading in insolence. It draws within itself the now impotent countryside…Here money and intellect celebrate their last triumphs…uncanny, too good to be true” like the market, the victory in Iraq; the new exalted leader…
Spengler’s comments on the dynamics of Culture remarkably complement my thesis on the nature of Western poetics. When the new image of self and culture is fresh, an idyll (the word is related to idol and idle or vain) of idealization spurs enthusiasm and activity and discovery. As the image ideal takes on a life of its own, possessing, displacing and dominating the lives of the ‘parent’ individual or culture that created it, as TV and screen world generally dominate and displace our personal lives now, a condition of alienation, confusion and terror occurs. A process of grieving begins. Finally, the self and individual are felt to be irrelevant and weak while the IMAGE (now wholesaled by the media) absorbs, like the Cosmopolis all life into itself. This is an apocalypse of self and culture leading to forms, styles, and feelings of mourning and elegy. The past is felt to be irretrievably lost and for most cultures is lost. This is the time of the “petrifact” that Spengler denotes “formless” because it has disorganized and displaced organic forms of life and relationship.
The occultist late W B Yeats celebrated the supremacy of the image over life in poems like “Byzantium” which lauds imagery as self-generating, free of human agency: “those images that yet fresh images beget” far above “the fury and the mire of human veins.” In this demonic work, human beings have become an unsightly, unaesthetic nuisance. No wonder that in his last decade Yeats was a Nazi sympathizer and slated to receive a medal from the Third Reich.
But the main point of this note is the remarkable congruence of Spengler’s historical analysis and what I have found in the West via literature, the logic of image-work in the drive for metamorphosis of a Greek-rooted culture that seeks idealization and salvation in an image, giving its life to it. The rule of inflated money and dubious financial systems, the swallowing of social governance by money and power, the lies of the media owned by the oligarchy distinguish both analyses. They explain what we are, whence we have come and where we are heading.
Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1917 Volume !, 1922; English abridged edition 1962, Alan Helps editor, translation by Charles Atkinson), 378, “Caesarism” in the section on “State and History.”

9 Aug

Simplifying Malory, Tennyson’s tale of “Balin the Savage” shifts from the suggestive doubling of the aggressive damsel from Avilion and the Lady of the Lake, to the conflict with Pellam, the Guinevere-disenchantment motif linked to Vivien’s role as malicious bringer of truth-by-slander. Malory’s erotically charged material about taking a magically-implanted sword from a woman of ambiguous identity Tennyson concentrates on Balin’s feelings of shame and inadequacy relative to Guinevere and Lancelot, ideals of queenly purity and knightly grace which he perceives as cruelly beyond reach and then as rudely disproved (154-284, 342-56). “Balin and Balan’s” structure, development and vivid images suggest that idealization is a form of fratricide, an idyll of the image-ideal that tends to apocalypse and elegy as does the Idylls as a whole. BB also is central to the epic in introducing exposure of the Order as a façade, its decline and the catalyst of decline, Vivien. In the quest to Pellam’s castle of relics, a place where Vivien lurks with masters of scorn, Balin’s passion exposes the end of an order built on magic revived as artifice by a culture losing faith. It was against such doubts, “an ocean-empire…that knows not her own greatness” that Tennyson wrote but they suffuse his re-working of the materials of national identity. Despite Tennyson’s veneration of Arthur as “ideal manhood closed in real man,”[1] his motto, “man’s word is God in man” and creed of man’s “maiden passion for a maid” (G 474-80) in the joust / Queen of Beauty ethic repeatedly undoes the ideal. The nostalgic effort to build a future by revising early cultural materials, to return via aesthetics to the Gothic, exposes a cultural critique beyond conscious intention, a “sign of storm” and “loosening of faith” Tennyson like many felt hastening “that battle in the West where all of high and holy dies away.”[2] The epic’s critique of Arthur and the idyll, elaborated through the last seven books is like the undertone in “DoverBeach,” a grating roar that unmasks the rot of appetite and bitterness beneath the beautiful and serene appearance and exposes the recession of “the sea of faith.”

Though this essay may seem to criticize Tennyson by suggesting a counter-movement within his ideals and purpose it seeks rather to demonstrate the great importance of his epic to understanding late Western Culture. It is with him as with his contemporary Wagner, that “his significance cannot be grasped with the resources only of a single discipline or a single perspective, for only [a plurality of] disciplines in their totality” can grasp the centrality of this material to the essence and logic of the West.[3] It is to such a comprehensive appreciation that this aesthetic-cultural and literary analysis appeals.

In another essay[4] I’ve examined the transfigurative urge in Greek and Western poiesis as driven by fear and a desire to change form. This metamorphic, self-transforming impulse or “image-work” was intensified when a dying Rome brought a hybrid culture of late Classical and Hebraic material to primitive European peoples. By the twelfth century they developed their distinctive cultural forms among which Romance and the Queen of Heaven were prominent. The literature and new culture, that of “the Holy Ghost” Joachim of Floris termed it, shifts the ideal persona into a mediating abstract erotic force that brings divinity into form as a superhuman savior whose death transforms all things, establishing new and true identities for all. It was a version of the celebration of death inherited from Greek tragedy, its antecedent fertility cults and gods of whom Arthur becomes an idealized and, in Tennyson, a sober and earnest exponent doomed by ancient cultural-biologic patterns and the fragility of the ideal. Wagner’s unabashed celebration of liebestod was truer to the malaise of the times as was his necessarily more sensual, less literate form, “a mere occasion for many dramatic poses.”[5] In Western poiesis, nascent in classicalGreece and full-fledged since the Gothic the sacrifice of the king is not for fertility but for self-transformation, for imaginative and spiritual change. This shift in cultural purpose may help explain the counter-force of Vivien. One might say she carries an archetypal or even physiological elemental power in retrieving the sensuality of the myth and freeing human beings from idol-worship and illusions.

My thesis about the Hellenic core of Western poiesis proposes that as energy is given to an image-ideal, it displaces the cultural body of constituent individuals and relationships, taking their attention and worship. Camelot and its transfigurative meta-figure the Grail are types of such an ideal. An idealizing culture dies drained by images that displace their host or generator. Image predation, like the displacement of life by virtual reality brings an era of apocalyptic expression in all fields: art, religion, finance, social relations, and geopolitics. The longer an in image is asserted as truth, the more strained and imperial becomes its need and demand for acknowledgment: thus political correctness and the dogma of “humanitarian intervention” to impose the idols of State, the forms that serve its power and images in which this power is disguised. When the sustaining body/culture collapses, having confused its ideal for life, the increasingly artificial image and its institutional forms deprived of hope and sincere worship petrify and break like the image of Guinevere, ‘free markets’ or “the rule of law.” Elegiac forms mix with and subsume apocalypse. There is “a toying with myths and a tasting of cults” to “fill the inner void” as religion becomes “religious pastime.” Reason “fades out” to be replaced by the cult of sensibility or “feeling” and “primitive religion… returns to the foreground [of culture] in the guise of popular syncretism.”[6] Efforts like those of Shelley to balance reason and imagination, faith and doubt break down in disillusionment and the image is recognized as consuming life.[7] Wagner’s emphasizing the pagan aspects of the West in a sensual medium was more in culture’s developmental stream than Tennyson’s literate effort to subsume pagan elements to a pragmatic and idealistic Christian imperialism that ends in gloom precisely as does Heart of Darkness and in syncretism like Eliot’s “Wasteland.” A great artist attuned to the dynamics of his time and materials, Tennyson’s Idylls show that skepticism and cynicism become pervasive and there is widespread dissolution of forms, the figure of which is the indeterminacy, elemental ambiguity and fratricide of “the last dim battle of the West,” the ‘Lyonesse’ figure.[8] A full appreciation of “Balin and Balan” would show that it is an epitome of the Idylls as the latter is of the West whose primary topic and ultimate datum is the self-negating essence and ultimate failure of the magic called transfiguration. Attempts by humans to achieve immortality or total control are self-defeating idylls. This essay is a précis of that comprehensive work.

The relation of ‘body’ (any given individual or culture) to its image-ideal is a process of doubling and splitting in which the body or human worships the ideal that drains and directs its source and host. In Arthur’s ambiguous birth, one could say his provenance, the supernatural and natural tensely co-exist. Building on the tension, Tennyson presents a myth that shows the ruin in attempting to transform self or society to a magical pattern of purity in which generative eros is effectively treated as dirt. The idyll of “the Queen of Beauty” like Victorian pseudo-gothic is a model for culture whose principals have no children. The most erotic action in the epic is Vivien’s destruction of Merlin and the erotic horror of her birth, one of Tennyson’s latest additions to the work, a trope of the image-maker’s tendency to lose control of its charm and of the latter’s bond to the blood knot that rises in counter-enchantment to the ideal. It is a culture and an image without a future despite Tennyson’s elaboration of Arthur’s goodness. The “war and wantonness”[9] he ascribes to Malory’s era certainly fit the early Modern era whose Symbolist religion of art rummaged antiquity for topics, finding its keynote in love-death. Denoting Imperial Britain as a “crowned Republic” of “crowning common-sense” exemplifies nostalgic idealizing. Three decades later Kipling’s “Recessional” was more honest in admonition.

So Tennyson’s idyll unfolds the strains and doom in its mode. His tale of Balin and the doomed “cognizance” or image of Guinevere epitomizes the epic and epoch. It is almost an antithesis of the Buddhist legend of Mara, Lord of Death and Illusion and his enticing daughters: not life but poiesis is the core illusion. Admonitory muses, especially Trshna or craving express the morbidity of the projected ideal, the transformative image-work suffused with eros and its terrors central to ancient Hellas and the culturally hybrid West. Wagner subsumed Christianity to its pagan substrate, Tennyson did the converse but as the mass media show, the future was not his…

Balin’s re-entry to court as a prodigal son (70-90) focuses the core ideal of Camelot, worship of a pure queen, “maiden passion to keep down the base in man” (G 476-7). Hoping to “move to music with [the] Order and the King” (73-4, 207), Balin begins with the hope of remediation through a Platonic ideal “a shadow’s shadow” that will be “a light [and] golden earnest” (199-204) of a soul tuned to the ideal; but the real within the image (“cognizance”) of faith and truth, destroys faith, truth and image. Balin’s story is a passion of an impossible dream that increasingly distances the adoring ‘body’ (first Balin, then rebels, then the entire culture, LT 455-86). On this path he destroys the shield, himself and his mirror image, the good Balan (52-3, 66-7 and 607-8). The action of the book exemplifies the complex and apocalyptic relation between the host-individual or culture and the ideal that absorbs its vision of excellence, beauty, power and strength, diminishing the host until the illusion is dispelled and image and host fragment and collapse. The fratricide of Balin and Balan and the book’s multiple spoliation of images are congruent to the disenchantments that precede complete elemental collapse in the last battle. What remains is an elegiac vision testifying to cultural origins and exhaustion.

The dynamics between image and self in “Balin and Balan” are reinforced by other doublings, in the unstable fraternal tie of Arthur to Lancelot, all but twins (G 326-34) and, more obliquely and by contrast, Arthur contra Vivien or Vivien with Guinevere, two facets of one martyred impatience. In a meta-doubling, the syntax merges Modred-Vivien and Lancelot-Guinevere (G 97-9). Tennyson’s weaving exposes the strain, danger and ultimate futility of idealization, for “release and redemption through semblance,” a Symbolist epitome and the century’s increasing investment in art as a form of saving self-transformation or alternately by deflection of the will.[10] Idylls show how desire pervades idealization and how art became the vehicle for diverse paths to therapy or salvation; at last, to the development-imposition of an ostensibly therapeutic State upon culture….

This is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming Image Work & Western Identity


[1] Dedication “To the Queen” (1873), 18-33 on doubts & faith; 38 and Hallam Tennyson’s note, Gray 371, Idylls of the King

[2] Ibid 46-66

[3] Peter Wapnewski, Die Traurige Gott (1978) quoted by Dieter Borchmeyer, Drama and the World of Richard Wagner (Princeton University Press, 2003, translated by Daphne Ellis), ix

[4] Eugene Narrett, “Poison & Poiesis in the Women of Trachis, Comparative Literature & Culture, XIII #1, March 2011

[5] Nietzsche, The Gay Science V. 361, 368 (NY 1974, translation & commentary by Walter Kaufmann)

[6] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West chapter 16, section on “the Second Religiousness” (NY 1962; 2006, abridged English edition by Alan Helps translated by Charles F. Atkinson), 346-8, 24-8

[7] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Triumph of Life” (1822); a repudiation of image-work previewed with less intensity and finality in “Alastor” (1815) and “Julian & Maddalo” (1818-19)

[8] Malory situates the last battle atSalisbury. Tennyson’s choice mixes geologic with cultural apocalypse.

[9] “To the Queen” 42-44

10. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Cambridge University Press 1999, edited by Raymond Geuss & Ronald Spiers, translated by Spiers), 26, 44; this is the role Schopenhauer assigns to vorstellung in restraining passion and will.

Image Work – Projection of an Image Ideal

8 Aug

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the supreme lyric voices, masters of conceptual metaphor and of the English language. He is perhaps most intriguing and important to understanding our culture in his profound ambivalence about the value of imagination as a path to truth, to personal fulfillment and social melioration. Often referred to as skeptical idealism, his ambivalence about image work expressed itself in three shattering critiques early in his writing career (“Alastor” 1815), “Julian & Maddalo” (1818-19), a thinly disguised debate with Byron, and his last and perhaps unfinished work, “The Triumph of  Life” (1822) that searingly depicts imagination and its erotic essence as self-delusion and the path to alienation and slavery.

In “Alastor” he offers his first somber view of the morbid and delusive dynamic of projecting an image ideal and transferring energy and Eros into it, draining the self and leaving it exhausted in the Narcissus pattern. In his admonitory Preface, defining the quest of “the Poet” in the poem, he describes image work precisely:

“He images to himself the Being whom he loves… the vision in which he embodies his imaginations unties all of wonderful, wise or beautiful which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depict… The Poet is represented as uniting these [qualities] and attaching them to a single image.”

But the dream image of the exotic “veiled maid” (151091) whose “voice is like the voice of his own soul” absorbs his hopes and desire in an erotic dream that leaves him drained and alone (192-222 passim). In the Preface, Shelley comments on the danger of the image ideal and idealization generally:

“The Poet seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception,” that is, he seeks fruitlessly in the world for a woman beloved that matches his ideal soul sister and alter ego. “Blasted by disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.”

While the long final paragraph of the Preface asserts the nobility and social value of the Poet’s idealistic desire, contrasting it to the selfish ‘prudence’ of the older Wordsworth, Shelley has emphasized the morbidity and alienation of image work. This great poem, an epitome of Hellenic based Western poiesis precisely displays the pattern of idyll – apocalypse – elegy embedded in Western identity, psychology and institutions. It explains and demonstrates its fascination with an image ideal, the displacement of life by the ideal and the resulting death. Scarcely 23, and beginning a singularly prolific use of images to make myths of social renovation, Shelley saw and described the darkness, sorrow, loneliness and despair of the image project; that is, he understood and depicted the decline and collapse of the West.

The greatest and culturally definitive aesthetics of the West express this pattern. We will examine a variety of the at this site.

Idealization &; Identity

7 Aug

Myths are the stories and images a group of people uses to construct itself as an organic unit with a discrete history, that is, as a culture. A culture uses the forms of art to express aspects of its myth the details of which express its identity or character.
Western culture though containing a powerful Jewish substrate is younger than Hebrew culture and is rooted in Greece (Hellas). The distinct essence of Hellenic culture is its emphasis on metamorphosis and idealization of via imagery. The self is transformed and ‘fixed’ in an image, often a god or goddess (for example, Athens is re-presented as a virgin warrior, Athena, the image-ideal of their high god, Zeus and the result of his transformation and male gestation and male ‘virgin’ birth. Athena depicts an auto-erotic male idealization that supplants female intervention yet results in a supreme warrior goddess. Continue reading

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7 Aug

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