Archive | September, 2011

Alastor, Essence of Image-Work

30 Sep

Percy Shelley (1792-1822) is a grand master of language and metaphor. His works also vivid exemplify image-work (see first post on this site), its celebratory use and searing critique. His first major lyric poem, “Alastor” (1815) provides examples of both approaches. While clearly a product of youth, the poem previews the vocabulary, symbolic use of nature and themes that fill his mature work. Among its many fascinating features is that of an in-work Narrator who earnestly but futilely tries to mediate between the Preface’s critical voice, Shelley’s distancing device, and the main figure or sufferer in “Alastor,” the ‘Poet’ who represents a central part of Shelley’s self, the youthful and alienated seeker. This disposition of the self into three parts characterizes many of his works (and his wife’s Frankenstein) and marks especially his three works that most powerfully indict as self-delusive, futile and self-destructive the idealization that is natural to poetry and central to image-work. “Alastor” is a lyrical mythic drama of the idyll gone bad; of an apocalyptic disillusionment with the image and alienation from life ending in an extended elegiac decline of the protagonist and despair for the Narrator. [more coming]

Poiesis & Inscription

27 Sep

The West was formed by the late Classical appropriation and transfiguration of Hebraic material into the Greco-Roman world, its imperial spectacles and emphasis on representation and metamorphosis. Key works for understanding the friction between these roots, these two very different ways of being in the world, perceiving and describing it are the myth of the Medusa whose gaze turns one to stone; and Tehillim (“Psalm”) 19 which treats the silent articulation of the universe, a song that inscribes without human speech or words. This “articulation which reaches the ends of the worlds” leads to the famous metaphor of the sun as a “bridge-groom arising from his bed to run his race” then turns from metaphor to an inscriptive order of life, the seven kinds of goodness of Torah.  Continue reading

How They Call Us

10 Sep

Not inspiration,
Not with her pillow underneath my mask
To smother me in comforts, which I want,
Waiting here for the beast that treads
Dead bodies as if they were clouds.
What ignorance I’ve tended in the dark
Fantastic laps I can no longer scent
Here, stunned with mundane anxieties by this northern sea.
What monsters flourish here reflected in this sky?
What memories eclipse this sun
When it sinks, step and pulse, like a dull heart?
Not the bat-headed shade that zooms from light
Like silence from an empty room
To clutch me with its voice.
But this I hear, and mark the thunk
Made when my morbid horn is quenched there
In the mask of her special place.

Seriousness of purpose makes
Nothing where the heart stumbles
To times subtler than we hear.
It fires me no more, now that I buy mature
What stinks with corruption’s clip and gender.
The ear and heart, no matter what they will
Must nurse the living dread of revelation:
The boy consumes his nurse.
Or that the muses love and conquer us,
The living dead.

I cry to recreate that real sea
Of death, not generation.

II

We’re cold now with accumulated little deaths,
Reiterated dreams that never broke their skin
Of cowardice, their little hearts tormented
By knots of passion gathering there:
Loops of spawn in exotic martyrdoms.
For all of these I wait
While the Sea-Crow soaring gluts its craw
Above Leviathan who breasts the hidden shore.

III

Teach me now, not that peace endures
But that it frees some metaphor
To crack this shell of song.
Are we not bound, as trees by vines,
To be releasing streams of phosphorous
Where we ride, Arion-like, Platonic music
And dance to the most terrible of gods?
What is the rhythm of the everlasting shore?
What beckons in its brightness?
All this philosophy hides the old bones,
Mother, and the warm dirt yet breaking into blooms
That nod thus idiotically,
Only too happy, clinch by clinch,
To be seen and emptied, crushed and picked,
Wresting from earth the end of time.

IV

Heraclitus said that the living sleep,
Each dreamer turning to his private world
Of artificial woods and beasts.
Just so the old ones knew that fire eats, not feeds,
That promises cloak more than walls,
That lying is a feast of terrible needs.
Elation hides in the horror of unlived lives
Where day by day the drams of poison mix with light
(as Dejanira, wasting, burned for Heracles)
and concentrate as wonderfully as death is said to do
our bestial attentions.
It’s true that we savor more than dread this drab enigma,
But only in its hidden form:
Heaving in the prison’s heart, we’re worthy of our dreams.

V

Dreams thrive like shapeless things in ponds,
Like liquid involutions. Chaos swallows sound
Even to heaven, as one Goodman heard,
And every pain creates its labyrinth.

Things that exist in the mind only bind the flesh,
Corrupt and make it stiff, so much do objects thrill us
Stuffed animals enamored of this cult,
Symbolic life, and the fiend waiting there.

The day already dreamt and the dream lived,
The flesh is strapped into immortal moods
Imagined by machines.

VI

So now I hear the dull archangel
Chattering of death and life in the winter light.
I hear the million phantoms raging there,
The memories and dreams that shatter nature:
She speaks, I hear.
He carries her, that chastened male,
Where serpents carry seed and spiders sperm;
My image carries her like a horned Priest
The golden bar corrupting in his head.
Just so the axe, so long in falling, catches my cold eye
And the air groans like crushed accordions.
I hear the pure religious tone that dark-skinned peoples heard
Before us in an infant honesty, they feigned.
Or it groans like the ocean in an empty shell
The sound of waking we have never learned to read.
Once, just one we tomb-dancers, we dreamers
Draped our flowers on this heavy-headed drum.
But now, like earless monsters of the deep
We baffle music to better feed:
We sleepwalk through the undiscovered country.
Or do we shame it, like a boy soaking his pillow,
Creating clouds and frozen gods to people them?
In the end, phantoms live everywhere.

Dialectic of Idealization: Dream and Terror

6 Sep

My theory of image work is derived from the study of Western Literature and Culture. Image work analyzes and explains the results, found in all cultural fields, of idealization, the dominant drive of what we call the West (first weavings c 150 – 1050 CE; identity formation 1050-1250 CE; elaboration 1250 {the Renaissance} – c 1790; unweaving, c 1790 {The Marriage of Heaven and Hell} – today). In the West, and perhaps in other idealizing cultures, idealization is a process of transfiguration and its core myth is a figure of transfiguration, an avatar whose metalepsis is the sangreal, –“sacred dish,” “dish of blood” or “royal blood.” The use of the “holy grail” itself is a transvaluation of the Hebrew concept that “the life is in the blood” but that, in contrast, thus forbids consumption of blood. The West makes this consumption, at once symbolic and ‘real’ a means of transfiguration. So too is the process of image-work vampiric: the ideal consumes its host in a process of radical transgression, transumption and transcription. Indeed, most major rituals in the West require the prefix and concept “trans” before them. The West derives its transfigurative drive from the ancient Greek emphasis on metamorphosis (“shape-changing,: magic) as the primary fact of life.

The essence of Blake’s transvaluation of values beginning with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell became a less mythic and gnomic force a century later with Nietzsche who, in his Twilight of the Idols uncannily adopts some of the quirky formal quality of Blake’s seminal work. For example, “How the True World Finally Became a Fable,” a critique of the “castrative” thrust of Christianity toward the passions is like one of Blake’s “Memorable Fancies.”
Like most of Nietzsche’s works, Twilight has many arresting and useful comments on aesthetics, idealization and their relation to Eros. It is, as its title suggests, a de-idealization or demystification of the idols of the West. I will adduce them in this sketch of the dialectic aspect of image work, an agon of transfiguration that is the West’s sneaky gift and related to the ‘wrestling’ of Socratic dialog, as Nietzsche noted[ 1].

In the first or idyllic stage of image work, an image-ideal is imagined and the identity of the image generator or ‘host’ begins to move into and possess it. This triumphant, joyous and quest-like transfigurative act, a kind of nuptial is countered in the second, apocalyptic stage when the image-ideal begins to dominate and displace the host whose identity it absorbs and represents, becoming a focus of fascination and imitation. This counter-rape is the basis of Western irony. The tenor of this second phase increasingly is terror. This leads to the weakening and collapse of the cultural or individual body or ‘parent cell’ and the concomitant authoritarian petrifaction of the image (modeled often in digital imagery) whose demands that it be recognized as the ‘true’ being become more insistent as it becomes more artificial and imposed. The strains of this last phase develop an elegiac mood as the dying generator, a Narcissus laments its fateful love for its image and subservience to it; in the modern world, the institutions of State, the ultimate image or persona (“mask”) organize insincere and inflated memorials (and build them) to the ‘sacrifice’ of the culture it has encrusted and killed.

Nietzsche called the State “the cold monster” and antithesis of “the human.”

Note that “idyll” and “idyllic” derive from eidellion or “little idol”; the West’s transfigurative myths, epistemology and rituals in all fields are a form of idol worship which the Hebrew Scriptures unerringly identified as an aggressive, imperial and suicidal way of being.

The intersection of Greco-Roman late Classical culture/civilization with Israel was the most magnificent, productive and fissionable tragedy in history. It is apt that idol probably derives from the Hebrew avel, vain or futile, and the Greek word was used in this sense by early Church ‘fathers.’ Image derives from Latin imago-imaginem (shadow, image, apparition, fantasy, echo and their synonyms) which in turn derived from the Greek magik – magike or shadow work. The West’s way of being makes all cultural matters aesthetic products, a magike – tekne or image-weaving, a pattern of shadows applied to transfigure the natural world. The futility and collapse of image work is shown in the West’s drive through apocalypse to elegy. Post-Modern mockery and ‘appropriations’ are the last stage of West culture as it returns to its core sensibility.

With the French Revolution (made by applying English political theory, as Spengler noted, to Continental social structures) and Terror, Europe underwent its initial end stage apocalypse. The Romantic period which began then as if scripted, emphasized terror as its mood and had an apocalyptic edge, not least on questions of identity (“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Jerusalem: Emanation of the Giant Albion; Prometheus Unbound) and transgression; soon afterward, first in England, the dominant mode became elegiac as seen in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” the epic  lament for which he was made poet laureate. His Idylls of the King and Wagner’s Ring Cycle further showed the grip of the elegiac mode on European Culture ossifying as Spengler noted into the Civilization of Megalopolis, “the great petrifact.”

The dynamics of my thesis explain why the Hellenic matter with its emphasis on metamorphic imagery and transfiguration, within “the West” increasingly absorbs, deform-transforms and suppresses the Hebraic material. This process appears in the changing curriculum of European and, even more so, of American Universities during the past two centuries; in the growth of a culture of image-idols; the inflation and reduction to two-dimensional, fictive quality of Western currencies; in the geopolitics by which the West first isolated, then sought to exterminate the Jews and then, via a series of ‘peace’ initiatives seeks to bury the essence of Israel with a virtual people for a virtual peace. It is in its relation to the Jews as much or more than in its deployment of a distraction machine of imagery that one sees the process of image work progressing from apocalyptic to elegiac phases as I have indicated.

Note the dialectic aspect of the three-stage process of image work: in the first, the host generates an ideal image; in the second, the image takes power and authority from its source and displaces it. The synthesis, to use Hegel’s now ubiquitous formula, is the mirrored state of collapse and petrifaction, the collaboration in death and grieving-as-spectacle (theatron) of host and idol. The image-ideal is a Medusa which fascinates, ‘fixes,’ freezes and kills as Goethe has Mephistopheles tell Faust, bewitched by his ideal image, Margareta upon whom he gazes in the Witches’ mirror and encounters again on Walpurgis Nacht:

Let that be! That bodes well for no one.
It is a magic image, an eidolon.
Encounters with such are not good;
The fixed stare freezes human blood
And one is turned to stone.

Faust understands, “indeed, a corpse’s eyes are those…” Mephistopheles emphasizes that “she looks to every man like his own sweet heart” or image ideal. This idealization, a “magic art” Faust calls it is the imago-magic of image work, the art of reflection in which the mirror is held not up to nature but to the defect in one’s own psyche [2]. This defect, pain or deprivation is the trauma Nietzsche identified in the Greek psyche as the source of its “demand for beauty” [3]. This is the pain and hollow heart that drives the glories of idealization and its transfigurations: that expresses itself in the tragic dynamics of image work, a suicidal dilemma of transfigurative idealization as in the Narcissus myth. As I have suggested elsewhere [4] physical and psychic trauma are the essence of Greek drama and culture, the original sources of image work. How so?

Idealization begins (and probably attests to) a process of alienation which intensifies greatly in the apocalyptic phase when the glamour of the elected image-ideal or new self imposes its otherness on the image-creator and, even more frighteningly, begins to possess the identity and displace the social and emotional reality of its host. This traumatic displacement and pervasive disorientation, the Narcissus dilemma is the basis of a culture of terror which is characterized by identity confusion and loss [5]. It also is characterized by political and geo-political imperialism as the ‘idol of State’ becomes the public expression of the image ideal and seeks, like “appetite, the universal wolf” [6] to “consume the world” having first eaten up itself, that is, the society and individuals that generated the image. In a sort of omophagia it consumes its host: “the boy consumes his nurse.” As Odysseus comments in Shakespeare, “chaos follows the choking” as the universal wolf of image-work, the poiesis that suffuses all fields and institutions like any parasite consumes its host. Then, like Frankenstein’s monster, it sanctimoniously weeps over the corpse it has killed [7].

The Hebraic comment on the arrogant world of the image-makers, their sanctimony, power, wealth and pride is contained in the verse “they will be consumed with bewildering terrors” (Psalm 73:12-14). This description has proven determinative and prophetic indicating a profound grasp of the inner poison of image-work by the only major culture to have proscribed idolatry: no beauty pageants or Olympics or screen world, no idol of State in a true Israel. Thus ‘Rome’ that lives by myths of transfigurative trauma needs to bury Israel. Only thus can ‘Rome,’ the belated fiction,”the  greatest intellectual counterfeit in history” live in the place of the genuine article, “the the…” In history and world culture, Israel is “The Man on the Dump” and also “The Hunger Artist” in every generation…

Nietzsche provides many brilliant comments on aesthetics that are relevant to my thesis and its explication. Some of these remarks highlight the erotic aspect of image work part of whose dialectic is a form of gender transformation. In a maxim keyed to Faust’s fascination with Helen-Margareta, he writes, “Man has created woman out of what? Out of a rib of his god – his “ideal.” [8] Nietzsche takes a jesting tone but his point on the de facto religion of the West, the female image-ideal/eidolon is unerring. The Hellenic goddess of passion, Aphrodite, literally embodies the sexual organs of the heavens. She has no father: she is the sex of her castrated father.  The inner feminine ideal is akin to the alienating and ‘reverse possession – displacement’ aspect of image work. It is visible in the rise of feminism since the Romantic period (and in the period of the original Arthurian romances generated during and helping to constitute the West’s formative period, which has led to a de facto goddess worship whose brutal, family, health, and culture-destroying form is embodied in postmodern divorce and its lawless law, its legal fictions and cynical displacement of any law but that the ‘goddess’ rules.

Another excursus by Nietzsche helps complete this overview of image work and its alienating dialectic of trauma and terror. In pursuing “a psychology of the artist” he proposes that all art and “any aesthetic doing” require “frenzy” even as a physiological (if not necessarily physically demonstrative) condition. “All kinds of frenzy” accomplish this,” he adds, “above all the frenzy of sexual excitement.” The erotic component of idol formation (the idyll), exaltation, possessing and, paradoxically, distancing (apocalypse) he described as I see it, as involving possession and a form of rape, first of the idol or image ideal and then of the host by the image: again, Coleridge’s “Christabel” portrays the most explicit form of this rape, its ambiguity and possession-displacement of the host’s identity. “Out of this feeling” of frenzy, Nietzsche adds, “one lends to things, forces them to accept from us, one violates them – this process is called idealizing” [9]. This overpowering of the will of the audience or of the physical nature of art materials (the materials of Medusa are human beings), which may be a society or world, itself is precisely the process that the Greek gods routinely adopt toward humans, not least Aphrodite as may be seen in her brutal intervention in Hippolytus and the Women of Trachis or in the many myths in which Hera, Poseidon or some other god asserts its will over that of a human subject. The gender reversal in the Herakles-Omphale story and in the confused identity of Hippolytus himself, his deadly and exclusive identification with Artemis, shows this process. Transfiguration of gender is the province of the Hellenic archimage, Teiresias, the core of the Iphis-Ianthe tale related by Ovid and the initiation of Pentheus (“pain”) by Dionysus whose body [10] double he becomes on the way to a transfiguring dismemberment, a precursor of the core passion (“suffering” from passio or pathos) of the West, its myth of transfiguration. That the mediator of this passion is an abstraction (“holy ghost”) of a fiction emphasizes the alienating, terrifying and abstract nature of Western image work, a most potent idealizing magic.

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols Part I, “The Problem of Socrates” sections 7-8 in The Portable Nietzsche (NY 1954, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann)
2. Goethe, Faust, Part I, 4189-4200, “Walpurgis Nacht” (Indianapolis & NY 1965, Charles Passage verse translation), 146-7; see also “The Witches’ Kitchen” in which Faust first is enraptured by the image of Helen- Margareta in the mirror, his ideal reflection.
3. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 2nd edition (1886), introduction, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism” in The Birth of Tragedy & Other Writings (Cambridge University Press 1990, R. Geuss and R. Speirs), 8
4. “Poison and Poiesis in The Women of Trachis” a study of the great Herakles play by Sophocles in which Aphrodite, “the Cyprian handmaiden” destroys him and his family, becoming a vehicle for the venom of the hydra that is her demonic form. Sophocles shows that the beautiful idealizations that are the Greek divinities are predatory beasts, a point also suggested by Heinrich von Kleist in his 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre.” In The Iliad, Homer calls the gods, “the dogs of war.”
5. Eugene Narrett, Culture of Terror: the Collapse of America (Bloomington Indiana, 2009)
6. Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida 1.3.124-6
7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (1831 author’s revised edition of the 1818 original) in Walton’s last letters at the end of Volume III, chapter 7; (NY 1985, Hindle edition), 212-25.
8. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxim 13 in TPN op. cit. 468; regarding the goddess worship that takes the form of infatuation with a feminine image ideal or ‘anima’ consider Percy Shelley’s idealization of and great poem on Emily Viviani, “Epipsychidion” (“on the little soul within my soul”).
9. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, op. cit. 518, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” section 8
10. I have alluded to plays by Euripides, Herakles in which Hera drives the hero mad and causes him to murder his wife and children, to destroy his substance or ‘house’ and the Bacchae in which Dionysus finally entrances Pentheus to “initiate him into his mysteries” and makes him the image of a Bacchante. The reaction of Hippolytus to his Amazon mother, Hippolyta (“unbridled horse”) indicates the identity confusion in his tragedy and is part of an ancient mythic conflict between bull and horse.

Sensuality and Death: Being from Poiesis

4 Sep

“The Emperor of Ice Cream” [1] meditates on the interwoven quality of life at its most physically playful and death at its most solidly, coldly and silently emphatic. The fact of death refuses voice, it does not sing: it is an ultimate poem as life in its sensual self-enjoyment is its own poem and contains the generative act par excellence beyond words that merit recording.

You should have a copy of this masterwork, only sixteen lines long in two eight-verse stanzas, at hand when reading this essay.

The poem starts with an imagist masterpiece, an evocation of physicality bursting from the verb that is a synecdoche for inspiration: “call.” The calling of Stevens surpasses “petals on a wet black bough” [2]; Stevens displaces Pound’s “apparitions” of anonymous public faces and modernist urban alienation with generic but intensely vivid descriptions of localized sensuality, gustation and courtship. The alliteration is percussive and luscious and the image, in which one intuits the big mustachios Stevens needn’t even mention, is pervaded by sweetness, olfactory delight and desire:

Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Muscularity, roundness, glowing, flaring fire and sexual heat are heightened by contrast with the cold curds of cream that focus the gathering of the local wenches and youths who bring the flowers that are the real purpose of yesterday’s papers as we saw, in a more complex figure in “The Man on the Dump.” The lexical archaism of dawdling wenches matches the universal and eternal rite in which flowers are given as a sign of the deflowering that is life to come, life triumphant over signs.

The dominion of life ‘as it is used to wear,’ to clothe and disclose itself, over the image, the use of descriptive images to subvert image work Stevens encapsulates in one of the most memorably curious and denotative prescriptions of English verse: “Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” The evocations of these two clauses actually make one declaration, first rigorously denotative and second ‘poetic’ or figurative and embody life and the image, being and seeming opposed and, opposite to image work, life subsumes the image, the figurative mirror exists to explicate the definitive statement of “The the…” the genuine article that is life, that is, the dump where images go to be dis-clothed of their veils and shadowy penumbras of nuance [3].

“Be” is doubled and doubly imperative in the brilliant first verse of the octet’s closing couplet and the sense of an ending is doubly present, once by rich allusion and once by plain statement. The phrase, “let be be finale of seem” thus encapsulates the poem’s entire structure and method. “Let be” is condensed “let it be,” a statement of relaxing acceptance tinged by fatalism. Its most sublime usage is in Hamlet’s rejection of intuited danger and continued role-playing and his acknowledgment of providence and “the readiness” for death, a sentiment perfectly apropos and proleptic of the second stanza of Stevens’ diptych. The dawdling wenches, bouquets of courtship, big cigars and concupiscent curds are the pregnancy of being that needs no invented dialog, that speaks in its depicted action, an eternal action that “holds the mirror up to nature” [4]. The richness of Stevens’ evocation of the local ice cream stand exalts everyday passion without ‘tearing it to tatters’ and, by paradox, a mode Stevens loves, observes the “modesty of nature” in its effulgent concupiscence. Formally and by auditory resonance, the doubling of “emperor” reflects the doubling of “be” and makes the mirroring of image work and its predations by the image subserve the dominion of being.

Doubling is essential to life, as in mitosis and meiosis, the organic model for poiesis that Nietzsche sought, and Hamlet knew that playing was its form. However he insists, like Stevens in this and his most unsparing poems, that the mirroring and paradoxes serve the stripping of metaphor in the tense dialectic of being and becoming repeatedly striving to isolate Being and confront its emptiness unveiled…

The second octet in this elegant poem that suggests and elides ottava rima, more closely approaches, with its half rhymes developing into full ones, the poetic form in the stiffly formal second panel of its diptych, reflects and trumps the first stanza with “take” paralleling and completing “call.” The assemblage in the connoted village square is balanced by a reclamation by death, a form of completion of one member of the company who moves into the last stages of her ripeness: there is a stripping and a simplified covering. Stevens insists that we must “let be” and certainly the corpse that gradually and startlingly becomes the center of the memento mori has “let be be finale of seem.” This is demand for resignation is the core of Stevens’ poetry of celebratory surrender of and by the image. It appears powerfully in late poems like “The Plain Sense of Things” and “A Quiet Normal Life.”

Suiting the word to the action, the syntax drives with ruthless precision to the thing itself: “unaccommodated man” or, in this case, woman, “a poor, bare, forked animal” undressed on “the dresser of deal” stripped of its “three glass knobs” as Lear is of his daughters and Edgar is of his name, station and, almost, his humanity; as a person, or a person’s character is un-charactered by death [5]. In Stevens the “nothing” of death is a thing of unsparing factuality asserted throughout the ‘sestet’ before the closing couplet: “take… that sheet and… cover her face.” It is not only the undescribed face, a source of implicit terror in the ancestry of Geraldine’s bosom and “half her side…a sight to dream of, not to tell” [6] but the brutally precise depiction of the protruding “horny feet” of the corpse “that come to show how cold she is, and dumb.” Stevens subordinates Romantic terror to the hard fact that succeeds ripeness, the cold of the ice cream is now literal in a different way and the eloquent dumb show of the dawdling flirters succeeded by a dumb show more final, the ultimate finale. Shining the light on his emblem of mortality like an old master of the brush, he puts the period to vocation in all its senses, giving the quietus to his “call” even as the dominion of ‘ice cream’ is shown by a gruesomely clever ‘buried’ pun to include the ice of death.

The closing couplet, like that in the first octet includes a descriptive statement stripped, not of allusion but of figuration and the triumphant metaphor that undoes figuration in crowning the facts of sensuality in life and death: “the readiness is all.”

1. Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923) with text from Wallace Stevens, the Collected Poems (NY 1990), 64

2. Ezra Pound, “In a Station in the Metro” (Poetry magazine, 1913)
3. Stevens, “The Man on the Dump” last two words, a non-sentence phrase that hangs suspended as if in air like the moon when it rises not as an image but as “the moon in the empty sky.”
4. Shakespeare, Hamlet 5.2.204-09; 3.2.15-22 and 3.2.1-41 inter alia (NY 2005, Longman Cultural Edition)
5. Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.105-10; see 2.3.1-21 for Edgar’s literal and figurative unclothing as he is “brought near to beast” and becomes “nothing” to his true self.
6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Christabel” (1797 – 1816), 250-3, “in the sight of this bosom there worketh a spell that is lord of the utterance, Christabel” suggests how deep may be the references subsumed by the Harvard-educated Stevens whose instructive corpse, at a wake perhaps, also is dumb. But there is no terror, simply the cold, hard simple facts of the room’s furnishings and the feet, modern precision displacing the sublime ineffability and accompanying terror of Romance.

Desolation and Play

3 Sep

Desolation and Play

Wallace Stevens (1879-1954) is the last great poet of the West. Like all great achievers and things, he is the poet of the essence of his culture’s identity, figuration. In the tercets that are his most characteristic form, as if embodying in aesthetic music the trans-historical concept of Joachim de Flores, Stevens constantly interrogates figuration, particularly metaphor about its worthiness as a medium to truth, to reality as he pursues a dual track to transfiguration: by negating and stripping metaphor to expose the ding an sich, “the Emperor of Ice Cream” and by a lyrical play of sound and metaphor startling and surreal, surprising as his occasional rhymes that seem irrepressibly human; they seem at once superbly poetic and new and dismissive of poetic ‘high art.’ Figuration is a glorious fiction, a lie, Stevens repeatedly suggests, expressing the inevitable confession and self-disclosure of his culture, a cult of figuration. Like the West, all figuration inevitably exhausts itself and ends on a dump. The real poetry is the life that is the remains of life, of making (poiesis) and artifice: the dump to which all things (“azaleas and so on”) are coming, will come or are, “the janitor’s poems.”
The twin pillars of his art, if one had to pick two, are “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Harmonium 1923) and “The Man on the Dump” (1942, Parts of a World). If one were to include another handful they could be “Domination of Black,” “Of Modern Poetry,” “Asides on the Oboe,” “The Plain Sense of Things” and “A Quiet Normal Life” (the last two from The Rock, 1955). This essay will stick mainly to the pillars noted above.

Stevens works at the boundary where craft and insouciance combine; where striving for plain speech and description become so intense they seem to generate figurations of bizarre hyper-clarity that makes the world seem doggedly surreal and nakedly emphatic. “Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up” begins “The Man on the Dump.” Striving to rejuvenate perception, Stevens evokes thoughts of Dracula scaling the wall of his castle, cockroaches, cripples and all that is grotesque and disgusting rather than gloriously romantic. Yet personification remains. While “the sun is a corbeil of flowers” “a bouquet the moon places there,” doubly an artifice, a cathedral ornament, Stevens laughs at his elegance: “Ho – ho” for “the dump is full of images.” The days there “pass like papers from a press” and, as in The Emperor of Ice Cream” “bouquets come in [yesterday’s] papers.” The sun becomes a series of suns both hallucinatory and banal, flipping like an image in the early cartoon technique. The stream of time becomes a mechanical process, old news mocked by new news that mocks itself and the beauty of nature and spring emerges and is buried in the printing. Sun and moon take their place among the debris of discards that are “the janitor’s poems of everyday,” wrappers, dead cats in bags, old corsets, odd knick knacks and tin cans in which fresh water, not long to be fresh, “smacks like the sea against a cocoanut,” not fresh because the sea, and its image, are salt and because of the rust, dirt and decay that are the context of the poem, a poem about the draining of the poetry of all things into the ultimate poem, the dump that is a metaphor for mind. Stevens, Shelley’s heir has taken down “the cloud of mind discharging its collected lightning” and its explicit social, legal and moral renovations and made it a place where “the dewiest dew” and the human ornaments it inspires, the metaphors for natural freshness that is all human work and passion becomes hatefully fraudulent except when it settles “on the dump.”

Springtime and the dump are equally disgusting “(that disgust and this”) and the efflorescence of spring, the paradise of the Renaissance and Romance, are food for the dump, a series (“azaleas, trilliums, myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox) like the days churned out on a press, banal bouquets. All is trash and when recognizes this disgusting end to the disgust of imposture, then “one feels the purifying change” as the romance of spring is replaced by the reality of the dump as the ultimate symbol of life. “That’s the moment” when “everything is shed” and, amid “the bubbling of bassoons… the moon comes up as the moon” and nothing else and is seen by a man (“not like an image of a man”, the simile alluding to the duality made by figuration and to its inescapability). But the end of figuration is emptiness: one is alone with the fact itself amid the tired gray “elephant colorings of tires.”

What, then, is the point of poetry, even in the service of “stripping the veil of illusion from the world” to “reveal the inmost naked beauty of its forms”? Repetitive, relentless, desperate and dull, it is like Los pounding his anvil to compel what is indefinite, delusive, insincere and anxious into particular form: “one sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.” One is hard-pressed to find a more stripped down vision of poiesis. In the rusted lard pail is the truth, one’s own truth: “one beats and beats for that which one believes, that’s what one wants to get near.” One hears in these verses the desperate thrust of Marlow’s narration in Heart of Darkness: the obsessive relation of the traumatic experience of innermost truth is like a dream and “we live as we dream, alone.”

Having identified the truth as the goal of poetry found when poiesis is seen as the primal and un-figured pounding of a drum (another evidence of the West’s regression and its hunger for the primitive and ‘authentic,’ for the end of transfigurative fictions) Stevens ends in a series of questions that challenge the icons of Western romance and poetry. Crows and “the blatter of grackles” displace the nightingale which perhaps tortures the ear and scratches the mind. The grating cackle of grackles, not the euphony of Keats is the “invisible priest” that mediates “the philosopher’s honeymoon” when truth is possessed as what “one finds on the dump.” All these deflations and revisions occur within a series of questions, seven in all, countering the ten sayings of creation’s six days and seventh of rest. “Is it, is it, is it, is it, is it” Stevens pounds it in with his tin lard pail as his searing and witty questions “pull the day to pieces and cry ‘stanza my stone,’ a quintessence of his humorous and bitter paradoxes and tone. As he ejects and tears with his questioning, like someone cutting for kidney stone, he alludes also to Jacob’s blessing of Joseph who “shepherded the stone of Israel” a metaphor for the patriarch and a synonym for the Creator, the model of all poiesis and art, as Tasso famously said. The last question, locating itself in space, is about the definite article isolated in space and doubling – reflecting itself, like an image, the ultimate image, “The the,” a fragment that needs no noun or action or any context but itself for it is the genuine article, the particular, “the truth.” That is the question, the last question of “The Man on the Dump,” the man seeking true articulation amid the repository of life returned from imagery to life, discarded from its uses and genuine at last, alone in an empty sky.

Where was it one first heard of the truth, — on the dump; The truth arises from the mind-dump as “the moon creeps up” and the mind constitutes itself, the Romantic fiction, Wordsworthian epic of the egotistical sublime as the West approaches the nature of the Divine, undoing itself and its constituent fictions. The unformed universe is the dump’s prototype, pure potential, that is power, that contains all things like “the poem of the act of the mind.”

In its death truth at last emerges: “if her horny feet protrude they come to show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam; the only Emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream.” This is better than Yeats’ mocking of the “drowsy emperor” to whom he fancies he will sing in his paradoxical state, “out of nature” but still in “bodily form” of gold enameling; for Stevens is in dead earnest. No cultist, he is both prosperous and down and dirty with all the impulses of Romance but none of the strained self-delusion of the reactionary Yeats. He is the poet of “the waste of the lilies” where “a rat comes out to see” the stillness of the great pond of mind and, at the end of the ride and glorious imposture, one has to imagine the death of the imagination, as the West has construed it. “The poem of the act of the mind” is a metaphor of the Creator and the universe in which ‘He’ is expressed.

To this death Isaiah and the Scriptures remains the tonic but we will write of that light another time. Neither we nor the world are ready to arise and shine. Those who do are obscured by the media and distraction machine; portrayed, when they are recognized at all as debris on a dump.

1. Thus Nietzsche suggests that Christianity, the meta-transfiguration by which the West constituted itself in multi-layered self-veiling conceits is “the greatest intellectual counterfeit in history” which inevitably strips itself of illusion by the commitment to truth it appropriated from Judaism. “The burning evening sky” of the West reflects the sublimity and truth of Judaism. See Beyond Good and Evil section 250 for the last quote.
2. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1821); see similarly his “The Witch of Atlas” and description of the apotheosis of Asia in Prometheus Unbound II.v. amid many of his images of revealing veils.
3. Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things” (The Rock 1955)
4. Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry” (Parts of a World 1942); all of Beckett can be derived from a few verses of Stevens: “the actor is a metaphysician in the dark twanging a wiry string that gives sounds passing through sudden rightnesses wholly containing the mind…”