“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien, nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time, certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”
Here he is, a little man in his trademark outfit of porkpie hat and rumpled suit. He ignores all conversational prompts, playing dumb and nodding a little as if out of beat with the situation, mid-daydream. “The American public would like to hear you say something. Would you say something? Go ahead,” Wynn cajoles him, “speak!” And upon these ventriloquist’s orders, Buster commences a routine that looks like a ludic premonition of the anguished choreographies found in Samuel Beckett’s plays. (Shortly before his death, he would appear as the solitary figure in Beckett’s metaphysically queasy 1965 short, Film).1 Carefully, the voice must be readied—the whole body is involved. He shrugs his shoulders a few times, bends his knees to ensure that he’s suitably limber, then performs some exaggerated respirations that make his chest swell and deflate like a ragged bellows. There’s a mysterious procedure of cheek massage and jaw agitation in which he looks like a gargoyle attempting to reverse the effects of amphetamines. He spritzes something into his mouth, the host looks quizzically on, and what shy laughter there was in the audience has receded like a weak breeze. Then, at last, he says “Hello!” in an eager innocent’s yelp. Wynn is astonished! His owlish eyes go wide, and Buster falls, exhausted, into his arms as the audience chuckles. Television is probably more accommodating to such outbursts of staccato weirdness than any other medium, but Buster’s act is much more than just an odd trick. He isn’t out of shape: a subsequent re-enactment of “the first scene he ever did for a camera” will prove he’s freakishly limber for a fifty-four-year-old and his timing’s still pin-sharp. This impish revision of an old routine about a hatful of black molasses, with Wynn taking the role originally played by Buster’s old pal (and Hollywood outcast) Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle will exaggerate the formal habits of silent film—intertitles and melodramatic expressions—to levels of inspired lunacy. Like in all his best films, the sleepwalking smoothness of his physical antics combines with a preternatural sense of how film itself can be the subject of witty subversions and knowing mischief.
That bewildering joke, which suggests that Buster can only speak after laboriously readying his body, plays on the strange fate of silent film stars in our imagination: silence is a symptom of their magical condition. The more of them you watch, the more difficult it becomes to think of them as possessing voices at all. (Would Theda Bara be mute in public, too?) What breeds in silence is, naturally, a sort of excitable noise: heightened fascination, fantastical lore, and outlandish forms of erotic gossip, all of which conspire to hide the dumbstruck star. The uproarious arrival of sound often led these delicate figures into the long and lonely twilight of their careers. The silence that reigned in the cinema twenty years before seemed unspeakably distant and, like the others, Buster had transformed into a relic, an object suitable for gawking audiences and inducing occasionally lyrical fits of nostalgic reflection. But he was able to stage a return when many had retreated into memory or private darkness. The year of his appearance on The Ed Wynn Show, Clara Bow, the actress who had slinked through the world’s erotic dreamscape for much of the 1920s, had been admitted to a mental hospital with a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia, then subjected to aggressive electroshock treatment. Ravaged upon release, she abandoned her family and moved into a bungalow near Los Angeles that she seldom left until her death in 1965. Buster was ruined by a slow fall into alcoholism but returned, and yet his rehabilitation and—let’s go for the hysterical mood of melodrama—resurrection conjure up more ghosts. His alcoholism was seemingly cured by a manic, spuriously medical process, and he didn’t quite vanish in the obscure years before its success. There’s plenty of intoxicating material to be found by studying Buster if you dodge the lustrous peaks of his career in favor of going deep into its gloom and supposed dead ends.
Unfurling this distended postscript without acknowledgement of the astonishing properties of Buster’s art would be unkind. A case study of his childhood might be equally rich, too. Born in 1895, which makes his age exactly synchronous with cinema itself, he was a willing participant in vaudevillian mishegoss as soon as he could walk. According to myths circulated by his father, he had survived a few twirls in the eye of a Kansas tornado when he was three. Alongside his parents, he was part of the Three Keatons, a riotous slapstick act in which his mother played saxophone and his father discoursed on child discipline while hurling Buster about the stage. His education was irregular; his father was an alcoholic. In photographs from this time, he looks like a playful wraith.
As a child, silent cinema was a ghost house I had to explore. My sense of reality was already perilously vague and the thought of these films that would allow me to watch the mischief of specters—everyone in them was, by the time of my childhood, decidedly dead—was a deep and wicked thrill. Whole days disappeared in the attempt to cast the shadow of Nosferatu on the wall as I climbed the stairs again and again. (I failed: it was very tough to get the head correct, my skull lacking the required Expressionist jags.) I remember chancing across Buster’s face in a film history book one monochrome morning and feeling the peculiar sensation that this haunted boy knew I was looking at him. Wholly at odds with the wild-eyed mania that silent film acting often promised, his presence was gentle and radiated an unmistakable sadness. He had the dreamy, lonesome look of a stray dog. His eyes would widen in moments of moonstruck goofing or genuine enchantment, then look on the edge of sleep when he was puzzled. Nobody else’s body yielded so smoothly to the sublime mindlessness that the best physical comedy requires, and he was beautiful in a way that, say, a clerical nebbish like Harold Lloyd would never match. On film, even in flashes of jackrabbit energy, he’s airily nimble and weirdly aided by the jittery accelerations and diminuendos of silent film speed that can make him seem too limber in his skittering or too light in his falls to be made of flesh and bone. At those moments he’s closer to a bewitched marionette.
In 1928, Buster was talked into giving up his own studio, where he made his finest films, and switching to the ascendant MGM. Bad contracts were signed; dark clouds began to settle in his head. His subsequent drift into alcoholism looks like a commonplace response to the baleful state of Hollywood and deep marital discord. Seven years before, Buster had married Natalie Talmadge, a delicate, fawn-like beauty of seemingly untrammelled malevolence who banished him from their bedroom once he had supplied her with the two sons (and the mansion) she required, reported him for kidnapping when he took the boys for a weekend jaunt, and refused to hear his name in her presence until she died in 1969 after years blasted on painkillers and hopelessly soaked in booze. She appears to have dreamed of transforming Buster into a bland mixture of benefactor and milquetoast, though let’s note that as the far less successful middle sister of two wildly famous actresses, Norma and Constance, she was never able to tell her own story, skewed and vituperative as it might have been. Natalie’s chief occupation was perfecting the girlish swirls of her sisters’ signatures on an endless cascade of publicity stills. In a photograph taken on their wedding day, Buster stands in between the three sisters in a spotlight of May sunshine, looking like a man about to be led to the gallows. Norma and Constance retired with the advent of the talkies. Norma was reputedly the inspiration for Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain(1952), the starlet of uncommon radiance destroyed by the arrival of sound, which reveals to the world that she’s in possession of the shrill, needling voice of a Brooklyn chipmunk. The reclusive, gone-to-ruin silent movie heroine played by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard(1950) is also an acidulous portrait of Norma. Like her sister, she suffered an unhappy fate, fleeing to Las Vegas, gorging on painkillers, seeing no one, and drinking all the time until she died there on Christmas Eve in 1957. (Much the same happened to Constance: they made a tragic trio).
As the marriage dissolved, Buster tumbled toward oblivion, too, succumbing to the song of what he called his “inner Bacchus” in order to escape domestic pressures. He became estranged from his sons, whose last names were changed so that they were suddenly Talmadge property. The pleasures of drinking had long since faded into the delirious routine of everyday alcoholism as he got drunk from sunrise until he blacked out. As he recalls in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), “all my weekends were lost weekends.”2 He left the mansion and drifted around Hollywood in a land yacht, “a fancy house on wheels that had twin motors in the chassis of a Fifth Avenue bus, contained two drawing rooms, a galley, an observation deck and slept eight persons.” By way of melancholy endorsement, he notes, “I had as much fun with my land yacht as a man can whose purpose is to forget his whole private world has fallen apart.” In a drunken blur one Monday afternoon, he staggered down to the MGM lot and befriended an extra—“I could not say today whether she was a blonde, brunette or a redhead”—took her home, and let her have her pick of the contents of Natalie’s enormous wardrobe, heaping up piles of cocktail dresses, fur coats, gowns, and sparkling shoes. He appeared in What? No Beer! (1933), a dismal but hugely successful talkie with the antic Jimmy Durante in which this mismatched double act accidentally become beer barons as Prohibition’s on the wane. Buster plays a taxidermist and suitably moves with the shambling gait of a bear half-stuffed with wool. When shooting was over one night, he tried to drink himself into unconsciousness but failed and came reeling into the studio the next morning, only to promptly pass out.
When he awoke, he found a letter from the studio bosses telling him he was fired. Buster had become a drunk at a time when alcohol was a source of immense moral panic. (William Burroughs’s grandmother had the motto, “I’d rather a son o’ mine came home dead than drunk!”) Grimmest of all, he had fallen for whiskey, which, as he said later, was popularly regarded as “pure evil, apparently being distilled in hell itself.”
Throughout the early 1930s, the backdrops shuffled like a collection of old postcards as Buster appeared in cheap slapstick short films shot in Mexico, France, and England. He read the “idiot cards” that rendered lines in foreign languages into phonetic English, repeating his dialogue over and over again for different territories to save on the expense of dubbing. Drinking was a useless form of self-sabotage—even knockout drunk, he was still able to perform his stunts.
Cultural historian Sudeer Hazareesingh’s new book was excerpted in the Guardian recently. It’s a tired old subject, the decline of French thought, but he’s at least given it more thought than Time magazine did. The section on ‘the pessimistic turn’ takes us right up to Piketty, Zemmour and Houellebecq’s Soumission:
Since the late 20th century French thought has lost many of the qualities that made for its universal appeal: its abundant sense of imagination, its buoyant sense of purpose, and above all its capacity (even when engaging in the most byzantine of philosophical issues) to give everyone tuning in, from Buenos Aires to Beirut, the sense that they were participating in a conversation of transcendental significance. In contrast, contemporary French thinking has become increasingly inward-looking – a crisis that manifests itself in the sense of disillusionment among the nation’s intellectual elites, and in the rise of the xenophobic Front National, which has become one of the most dynamic political forces in contemporary France. Nora, writing in 2010, concluded despondently that France had become the land of “shrinking horizons, the atomisation of the life of the mind, and national provincialism”. Time magazine proved him right in 2015 when it included Marine Le Pen in its list of the world’s 100 most influential figures (the only other French person on the list was the economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century).
How is this transformation to be explained? Among the most important factors is a collective recognition that France is no longer a major power. The complicated condition of the European project, which was decisively shaped in the past by a string of French figures (from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors), bears witness to this decline. This change in the nation’s collective psychology also stems from a delayed recognition of the devastating character of France’s military defeat in 1940, and the impact of two further catastrophes that were not fully internalised: the loss of Indochina and the withdrawal from Algeria. For most of the post-liberation decades, these events were cushioned by the reassuring fiction that the French had behaved heroically during the war, and that France still represented an alternative force in world politics, thanks to its seat at the UN security council, its messianic Gaullist leadership and its distinct political and cultural values (as De Gaulle once observed: “I prefer uplifting lies to demeaning truths”). This myth was largely intended as a replacement of the (equally fabulous) ideal of the French mission civilisatrice in the colonies. Yet this collective confidence has been seriously damaged by the unravelling of the myth of the resistance and the emergence of a “Vichy syndrome”, which in the last two decades of the 20th century detailed the extent of French collaboration during the years of occupation.
This pessimistic sensibility has been exacerbated by a widespread belief that French culture is itself in crisis. The representation of France as an exhausted and alienated country, corrupted by the egalitarian heritage of May 68, overrun by Muslim immigrants and incapable of standing up for its own core values is a common theme in French conservative writings. Among the bestselling works in this genre are Alain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse (2013) and Éric Zemmour’s Suicide Français (2014). This morbid sensibility (which has no real equivalent in Britain, despite its recent economic troubles) is also widespread in contemporary French literature, as best exemplified in Michel Houellebecq’s recent oeuvre: La carte et le territoire (2010) presents France as a haven for global tourism, “with nothing to sell except charming hotels, perfumes, and potted meat”; his latest novel Soumission (2015) is a dystopian parable about the election of an Islamist president in France, set against a backdrop of a general collapse of Enlightenment values. A major underlying consideration here is the perception of the decline of French as a global language, and its (much-resented) replacement by English. A variety of groups and associations have long been campaigning vigorously against the importation of English words into French. The linguist Claude Hagège referred to the invasion of the English language as a “war”, claiming that its promotion “served the interests of neoliberalism”. Since 2011, the website of the Académie Française has a section dedicated to weeding out anglicisms from the French language. Among the expressions recently singled out for censure were conf call, off record, donner son go (authorise), chambre single,news and faire du running (notwithstanding this crusade, the word “selfie” is set to be included in the 2016 edition of the Larousse dictionary).
A more profound cause of the current malaise relates to the ways in which French elites are recruited and trained. For much of the modern era, the nation’s republican and socialist leaders were grounded in a meritocratic and humanist culture typically provided by institutions such as the École Normale Supérieure: among its most famous graduates were the likes of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. However, since the 1960s French elites have increasingly come from technocraticgrandes écoles such as the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Most of the recent leaders of the Socialist party, including prime ministers Fabius, Rocard and Jospin; and president Hollande, are énarques. Their intellectual outlook reflects the strengths of this type of technocratic education, such as a capacity for hard work and for mastering complex briefs. But it also illustrates its endemic weaknesses: an inability to think creatively, a tendency towards formalism and rule-following, a socially exclusive and complacent metropolitan outlook, a corporatist, bunker mentality (as the joke goes, “Spain has the ETA, Ireland the IRA, and France the ENA”). Above all, it shows an overwhelmingly masculine style and ethos. Women in France struggle even more than in other advanced industrial societies to assume leading positions in politics (the law on parité, for example, is openly flouted by all parties) – and when they do break through the glass ceiling, female politicians face an exceptional barrage of hostility: Édith Cresson is the only woman to have served as prime minister, and she lasted less than a year.
This ascendency of technocratic values among French progressive elites is itself reflective of a wider intellectual crisis on the left. The singular idea of the world (a mixture of Cartesian rationalism, republicanism and Marxism) that dominated the mindset of the nation’s progressive elites for much of the modern era has disintegrated. The problem has been compounded by the self-defeating success of French postmodernism: at a time when European progressives have come up with innovative frameworks for confronting the challenges to democratic power and civil liberties in western societies (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of empire, and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the state of exception), their Gallic counterparts have been indulging in abstract word games, in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard. French progressive thinkers no longer produce the kind of sweeping grand theories that typified the constructs of the Left Bank in its heyday. They advocate an antiquated form of Marxism (Alain Badiou), a nostalgic and reactionary republicanism (Régis Debray), or else offer a permanent spectacle of frivolity and self-delusion (Bernard-Henri Lévy). The sociologist Bruno Latour clearly had this syndrome in mind when he observed: “It has been a long time since intellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed it has been a long time since the very notion of the avant-garde …passed away.” But we should remember that in France especially, there is always the potential for a sudden reversal: regeneration is one of the essential myths of French culture.
A great writer, James Salter, died aged 90 last Friday. Here’s an excerpt from his Paris Review interview from 1993, on his French literary influences:
Do you think your sensibility is French?
Not particularly. Ned Rorem said that it is. I like France, and I like the French, but no.
Is Colette a figure who has meant anything to you?
Oh, yes. I don’t remember when I first came upon her. Probably through Robert Phelps, although I must have read scraps here and there. Phelps was a great Colette scholar who published half a dozen books about her in America, including a book I think is sublime, Earthly Paradise. It’s a wonderful book. I had a copy of it that he inscribed to me. My oldest daughter died in an accident, and I buried it with her because she loved it too.
Colette is a writer one should know something about. I admire the French for their lack of sentimentality, and she, in particular, is admirable in that way. She has warmth; she is not a cold writer, but she is also not sentimental. Somebody said that one should have the same amount of sentiment in writing that God has in considering the earth. She evidences that. There’s one story of hers I’ve read at least a dozen times, “The Little Bouilloux Girl” in My Mother’s House. It’s about the most beautiful girl in the village who is so much more beautiful than any of her classmates, so much more sophisticated, and who quickly gets a job at a dressmaker’s shop in town. Everyone envies her and wants to be like her. Colette asks her mother, Can I have a dress like Nana Bouilloux? The mother says, No, you can’t have a dress. If you take the dress, you have to take everything that goes with it, which is to say an illegitimate child, and so forth—in short, the whole life of this other girl. The beautiful girl never marries because there is never anyone adequate for her. The high point of the story, which is marvelous because it is such a minor note, comes one summer when two Parisians in white suits happen to come to the village fair. They’re staying nearby in a big house, and one of them dances with her. That is the climax of the story in a way. Nothing else ever happens to her. Years later, Colette is coming back to the village. She’s thirty-eight now. Driving through town she catches sight of a woman exactly her own age crossing the street in front of her. She recognizes and describes in two or three absolutely staggering sentences the appearance of this once most beautiful girl in the school, “the little Bouilloux girl,” still good-looking though aging now, still waiting for the ravisher who never came.
When did you get to know Robert Phelps?
It must have been in the early 1970s. A letter arrived, a singular letter; one recognized immediately that it was from an interesting writer, the voice; and though he refrained from identifying himself, I later saw that he had hidden in the lines of the letter the titles of several of the books he had written. It was a letter of admiration, the most reliable form of initial communication and, as a consequence, we met in New York a few months later when I happened to be there. He was, I discovered, a kind of angel, and he let me know, not immediately, but over a period of time, that I might belong, if not to the highest company, at least to the broad realm of books and names—more was entirely up to me.
Phelps introduced me to the French in a serious way, to Paul Léautaud, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, and others. His life in some respects was like Léautaud’s—it was simple. It was unluxurious and pure. Léautaud lived a life of obscurity and only at the very end was rescued from it by appearing on a radio program that overnight brought him to public attention—this quirky, cranky, immensely prejudiced, and educated voice of a theater critic and sometime book writer and diarist who had unmercifully viewed life in the theater for some fifty years and lived in a run-down house with dozens of cats and other animals and, in addition to all this, carried on passionate love affairs, one for years with a woman that he identified in his diaries as The Scourge. Phelps had some of that. He lived a very pure life. Books that did not measure up to his standards he simply moved out into the hall and either let people pick up or the trashman take away. He did this periodically. He went through the shelves. So on his shelves you found only the very best things. He believed in writing. Despite every evidence to the contrary in the modern world, he believed in it until the very end. Phelps died about three years ago. I said I thought of him as an angel. I now think of him as a saint.
It seems as if André Gide was a major influence on you at one time.
He was, but I cannot remember exactly why. I read his diaries when I first started writing in earnest, and then I read, and was very impressed by, Strait Is the Gate. I had an editor at Harper Brothers, Evan Thomas, who asked me what I was interested in, and I told him I was interested in Gide. A look of bewilderment or dismay crossed his face, as if I’d said Epictetus, and he said, Well, what book of his are you reading? I said, Strait Is the Gate. It’s simply a terrific book. Have you read it? He said, No. I could tell from his tone that it was not the sort of thing he read or that he approved of my reading. My impression of Gide, looking back, is of an unsentimental and meticulous writer. I would say my attentions were not drawn to the wrong person.
Are there other French writers who particularly influenced you?
I’ve read a lot of them. Among those who are probably not widely read I would say Henry de Montherlant is particularly interesting. Céline is a dazzling writer. Here we have a disturbing case. Certain savage works of his have been stricken from the list. We know his views. The French almost executed him themselves. So we are talking about a dubious personage who is now deemed, I think correctly, as one of the two great writers of the century in France. It’s a perfectly valid nomination. Even his last book, Castle to Castle is tremendous. It must have been written in the most trying circumstances imaginable. When you read something good, the idea of looking at television, going to a movie, or even reading a newspaper is not interesting to you. What you are reading is more seductive than all that. Céline has that quality.
In 1967, while working with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr on A Fortunate Man, a book about a country GP serving a deprived community in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, John Berger began to reconsider what the role of a writer should be. “He does more than treat [his patients] when they are ill,” Berger wrote of John Sassall, a man whose proximity to suffering and poverty deeply affected him (he later committed suicide). The rural doctor assumes a democratic function, in Berger’s eyes, one he describes in consciously literary terms. “He is the objective witness of their lives,” he says. “The clerk of their records.”
The next five years marked a transition in Berger’s life. By 1972, when the groundbreaking art series Ways of Seeing aired on BBC television, Berger had been living on the Continent for over a decade. He won the Booker Prize for his novel G. the same year, announcing to an astonished audience at the black-tie ceremony in London that he would divide his prize money between the Black Panther Party (he denounced Booker McConnell’s historic links with plantations and indentured labour in the Caribbean) and the funding of his next project with Mohr, A Seventh Man, recording the experiences of migrant workers across Europe.
This is the point at which, for some in England, Berger became a more distant figure. He moved from Switzerland to a remote village in the French Alps two years later. “He thinks and feels what the community incoherently knows,” Berger wrote of Sassall, the “fortunate man”. After time spent working on A Seventh Man, those words were just as applicable to the writer himself. It was Berger who had become a “clerk”, collecting stories from the voiceless and dispossessed – peasants, migrants, even animals – a self-effacing role he would continue to occupy for the next 43 years.
The life and work of John Berger represents a challenge. How best to describe the output of a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, contains ten “novels”, four “plays”, three collections of “poetry” and 33 books labelled “other”?
“A kind of vicarious autobiography and a history of our time as refracted through the prism of art,” is how the writer Geoff Dyer introduced a selection of Berger’s non-fiction in 2001, though the category doesn’t quite fit. “To separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea,” Berger wrote in 1991 in a manifesto (of sorts) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he first read, in French, at the age of 14.
Berger’s influence in the literary and wider artistic worlds is a little easier to measure. “He is the lodestar of the contemporary literary experience,” the Irish novelist Colum McCann tells me. “I cannot imagine my bookshelves without him. The other writers would collapse.” Susan Sontag described him as “peerless” for his ability to merge “attentiveness to the sensual world” with “the imperatives of conscience”, though Berger himself prefers to be described, simply, as “a storyteller”. Social and political commentary, subjective response and aesthetic theory are the basic elements of much of what he writes – but it all begins with seeing.
When I arrive, wet, to meet Berger at a house in Paris one recent gloomy morning, he looks concerned. “You’re cold!” he says, urging me to sit down by the radiator while he disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.
‘This pedestrian term is actually the key to my historical period.
A disputatious panel at last year’s professional conference revealed the surprising state of the field (it’s as bad as you think).
My historical period, properly understood, includes yours.
What looked like a moment of failure, confusion, or ugliness in this well-known work is better seen as directions for reading the whole.
A problem you thought you could solve defines your field; you can’t imagine the field without the problem.
The only people able to understand this work properly cannot communicate that understanding to you.
Those two apparently incompatible versions of a thing are better regarded as parts of the same, larger thing.
Quantitative methods have an unexpected use.
Analytical tools developed for, and strongly associated with, a well-defined set of things in fact apply to a much larger set of things.
A public event simultaneous with, but apparently unrelated to, a famous art work in fact shaped that work’s composition or reception.
This famous thing closely resembles, and therefore responds to, that slightly earlier, less famous thing.
If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like it.
If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like you.
Before a given date, a now obscure, once omnipresent theory meant that all of culture was somehow different.
After a given date, a new technology meant that all of culture was somehow different.
The name we’ve been using for this stuff is anachronistic. Here’s a better name.
In ninth grade English Mrs X required us to memorise and recite a poem and so I asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew and she suggested Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
..contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorised Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet whereas I had only to recite 24 words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make 14 of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorise than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb – a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That plus the four instances of ‘it’ makes Moore sound like a priest grudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the awkward enjambment of the second line and the third (‘in/it’). In fact, ‘Poetry’ is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right on any of the three chances I was given by Mrs X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.
My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike it has been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet (including me) is being introduced at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach I basically hum it. When somebody tells me as so many people have told me that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe poetry is dead because it is either hackneyed or obscure: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.
What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure. There’s an ‘undecidable conflict’ between the poet’s desire to make an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, ‘resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed’. Writing about Hart Crane, Grossman develops his notion of a ‘virtual poem’ – what we might call poetry with a capital ‘P’, the abstract potentiality of the medium as felt by the poet when called on to write – and opposes it to the ‘actual poem’, which necessarily betrays the originary impulse. Grossman says actual poems are foredoomed by a ‘bitter logic’ that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity.
The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing. At university in the 1990s the coolest young poets I knew were reading Rimbaud and Oppen – two very great and very different writers who had in common their abandonment of the art (though Oppen’s was only temporary). Rimbaud stops at twenty or so and starts running guns; Oppen is silent for 25 years while living in Mexico to escape FBI inquiries into his labour organising. Rimbaud is the enfant terrible who burns through the sayable; Oppen is the poet of the left whose quiet is a sign of commitment. ‘Because I am not silent,’ Oppen wrote in a poem, ‘the poems are bad.’
‘Longest way round is the shortest way home’ unless you stop at the pub, half way, and stay there. The first Bloomsday on film:
Also, here’s Joyce reading from Aeolus episode of Ulysses; the only ‘declamatory’ passage, apparently.