Unreal Nature

March 24, 2017

Cunning (Are They?) Confusions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… It is not a skeleton key we need, so much as eyes to see in spiritual (was it?) darkness; and ears with which to separate cunning (are they?) confusions.

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Louise Bogan first disapproves, as in this 1939 essay found in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan edited by Mary Kinzie (2005):

… The most frightening thing about the book is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing; and how, in spite of all his efforts, he is giving himself away. Full control is being exercised over the minor details and the main structure, but the compulsion toward a private universe is very strong. … Joyce’s delight in reducing man’s learning, passion, and religion to a hash is also disturbing. …

[line break added] After the first week what one longs for is the sound of speech, or the sight of a sentence in its natural human context. … The book cannot rise into the region of true evocation — the region where Molly Bloom’s soliloquy exists immortally — because it has no human base. Emotion is deleted, or burlesqued, throughout. The vicious atmosphere of a closed world, whose creator can manage and distort all that is humanly valuable and profound (cunningly, with Godlike slyness), becomes stifling. …

[line break added] Ulysses was based on a verifiable theme: the search for the father. The theme, or themes, of Finnegans Wake are retrogressive, as the language is retrogressive. The style retrogresses back to the conundrum. To read the book over a long period of time gives one the impression of watching intemperance become addiction, become debauch. [ellipses within that paragraph are in the original]

The book’s great beauties, its wonderful passages of wit, its variety, its marks of genius and immense learning, are undeniable. It has another virtue: in the future “writers will not need to search for a compromise.” But whatever it says of man’s past, it has nothing to do with man’s future, which, we can only hope, will lie in the direction of more humanity rather than less. And there are better gods than Proteus.

But by 1944, Bogan had a different view of Joyce’s work:

… Time must pass, and thorough research be made, before certain fundamental questions concerning Finnegans Wake can be answered. One question that comes to mind is: are we dealing with a work (always granting that it is a work of incontestable genius) essentially small in inner meaning and even in essential design, a work that has nevertheless exfoliated into a semblance of growth and complexity? Are we dealing, that is, with a work, the product of a man and artist who has never come into maturity?

[line break added] Or are we dealing with an essentially great work, the product of a man and artist who has suffered life and transcended his suffering; who is no longer the victim of his talent, his circumstances, or the tensions within his own character, but has become master of them all? Are we getting from this fantastically distorted and interwoven speech, these amazingly contrapuntalized themes, illumination and truth; or are we being led into the mystery of a childish individual’s dreaming game, with the rigmaroles and jokes and tricks of the child (or immature man) presented to us neat?

Joyce’s lyric gifts, his full equipment as a trained realist, his ingenuity as a fabulist, his skill as a parodist, his sharp wit and Jesuit-trained learning, his innate musician’s ear — these attributes are as clearly evident in Finnegans Wake as they are in any piece of writing he ever produced. What difference does it make if we are listening to the operations of sleep; we have heard such operations in great pieces of literature before this. Even if Joyce was a sick man, we are listening to a writer who was in many ways a martyr to his genius and to his age.

[line break added] But we want to penetrate the disguises he has had to throw about himself; or the symptoms he has been forced to assume. We have this desire not out of niggling curiosity, but out of real interest: that we may receive the help and refreshment that any true artist’s struggle with his material gives us, particularly when we are caught with him into the same deforming time.

The poet and the “comic fabulist” are equipped with uncommon gifts by which they are able to get around interior “censorship.” They have tricks, as it were, to get the information through. They transpose the dangerous and (actually) untellable truths of the Subconscious into imaginative terms, not easy to bring, otherwise, into the light of day. What strikes the more detached observer when faced with the extreme opacities of certain portions of Finnegans Wake is the certainty that concealed beneath his very eyes is a submerged fable having to do directly with Joyce, with Joyce’s relations to the world, with Joyce’s attitude to his time.

James Joyce in 1918

Joyce is doing more than returning compulsively to the Dublin from which he is an exile. He is razing more than Dublin structures with the fires of his love and hatred.

What exterior situation, then, brought Joyce to the pass where, to get his secret across, he had to resort to a kind of desperate cunning? To resort, as well, to the often monotonous, often trivial, often brutal, ruses of the accomplished farceur? Or to the insistent sobbing minor lyric passage? (It seems at times that these two “tones” are the only ones in the book.) Does this work stand like a terrible half-buried monument, both to the recent past and the near future: outlining a deforming epoch when a work of art must become oblique expression — a joking show, a wry song, a cockeyed cinema-mythology — in order to exist at all?

“The price of virtuosity is abject slavery to a complaisant tool; that of creative artistry is willful dominance over a recalcitrant tool.” What do we finally see in Joyce: a virtuoso or artist; compulsive neurotic or writer with himself entirely in hand? This question requires a deeper analysis than has yet been dared by Joyce students and disciples. It is not a skeleton key we need, so much as eyes to see in spiritual (was it?) darkness; and ears with which to separate cunning (are they?) confusions.




March 23, 2017

Addressed to the Masses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… Years devoted to cultivating such a neutral sensibility so govern the eye and the mind that for a painter to move to a realistic social art requires a drastic change in his whole activity.

Continuing through Worldview in Painting — Art and Society by Meyer Schapiro (1999):

… The models of the self-absorbed literary artist have been writers like Proust and Joyce, who, whatever their indifference or insensitiveness to large sections of society and to whole fields of human action, have a marvelously sure perception of individual feeling. The modern writer had to be attentive to the minutest variations of internal life; in his subjectivity, he was a delicate and refined observer. The great painters of the same time, men like Picasso and Matisse, on the other hand, have only the slightest interest in acting and feeling human beings.

[line break added] They convert the human subject into an obstruse arabesque or intense spot of color. Their human beings are faceless or expressionless, separated from each other, or bound together through deformations that negate their human character or their psychological richness; they are ultimately still life, if the natural shapes are preserved. This reduction is not inherent in art, but in a certain style of art, a style that had a historical necessity, but not the eternal validity that is claimed for it. But even the more realistic contemporary artists have much the same character.

[line break added] Those who in opposition to abstract art call themselves objective painters are scrupulously objective about apples, pots, furniture, buildings, machines, mountains, nude bodies — essentially impersonal objects. The objectivity is tied to neutral things, to elements that lack entirely an essential interaction, that do not communicate with each other, or that show the effects of active pervading forces. That is evident even in the forms of such pictures in the peculiar arabesques and cryptic, arbitrary juxtapositions.

… [This kind of artist] had never to say to himself that such and such a coloring or arrangement was not right for the [social] conflict or action he was representing. The neutrality of meanings was not an absence of meanings, but a reference to a world in which all objects are instruments of individual pleasure or contemplation (flowers, cards, mandolins, faces,grotesques, etc.) and have no important consequence. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for the artist to weigh his forms in terms of meanings and to explore his subjects for their more detailed significance.

[line break added] Years devoted to cultivating such a neutral sensibility so govern the eye and the mind that for a painter to move to a realistic social art requires a drastic change in his whole activity. It is not that he ceases to be an artist in the older sense, but that he confronts at every point problems entirely foreign to his older habits. For a gifted abstract painter, the determination to be a revolutionary artist, or the very idea that he must become one, may have a demoralizing effect; it may create an internal crisis in which the artist is neither the one thing nor the other and trembles to take brush in hand.

[line break added] He has, besides, a difficult economic problem, more difficult than the writer’s. The writer’s skill permits a variety of livelihoods, compatible with his chief goal; whereas the revolutionary painter creates an unsaleable commodity that absorbs his whole effort. Neither the working class nor the middle class sympathizers can buy oil paintings, and mural painting is even less reliable as a source of income.

… It must be pointed out, however, that the artist’s experience as a “pure” painter is not altogether a hindrance in his new art. It is not merely that the old technique and developed sensitivity to colors and shapes and handling are still valid — to a certain degree these are conditioned by the underlying attitudes of the painter and may have to be changed. But there are intimate conditions of his former practice that survive in the new art in a transfigured and heightened way.

… The revolutionary artist does not find at hand an already digested material, a repertoire of traditional compositions and important subjects, like the old church pictures of Christ Enthroned, the Baptism or Crucifixion or the Last Judgment, from which he can proceed. He begins as an individual artist who must create his own themes as he created his abstractions or neutral compositions of objects. He has the whole responsibility of his conceptions. There are no formulas or prescribed rules of revolutionary painting. He is absolutely original and individual in creating this social art, which binds him to a group.

[line break added] As a member of this group he shares a common experience and is stimulated and guided by general principles and practices that have crystallized in long struggles and constant discussion. But as an artist he requires now a courage and self-reliance of an order other than his self-reliance as a pure artist. For whereas in the latter situation he judged his works in an absolutely sovereign spirit, admitting no judgment of a layman, his work now is addressed consciously to the masses as well as to artists.

My most recent previous post from Schapiro’s book is here.




March 22, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Into the gap entered the fashion industry, which decisively shook the scene’s pictorial variants into an unlikely new cocktail.

Continuing through New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff (2002):

… Looking back, we can see that crosscurrents — which mixed different political and aesthetic impulses — infused the scene with a certain tension, favorable to photography. Beyond the Photo League, they were reinforced by other visual resources and outlets for the medium, clustered in New York. There were, to begin, Life, Fortune, Look, Collier’s, Vogue, Coronet, and PM’s Weekly, active clients in the world of magazines and press. Steichen, director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art from 1947 to 1962, featured promising photographers in group shows.

[line break added]  Alexey Brodovitch ran a workshop under the sponsorship of the New School for Social Research that was something of a think tank for new talent as well as a scouting pool for Harper’s Bazaar. In the 1940s, the likes of Louis Faurer, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon, and Ted Croner attended the workshop. Certain connections between fashion and street photography were exemplified by Avedon — following the lead of the Hungarian Martin Munkácsi, a photographer of particularly athletic models.

[line break added]  Robert Capa, another Hungarian, the most celebrated foreign (photo) correspondent of his time, co-founded Magnum, the paramount photo agency of the century, in 1947, with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim, and George Rodger. Magnum was an intensely energetic, war-seasoned, and self-aware group that provided visual news yet kept its copyrights. The demand for pictures of all categories had risen, in New York, to an unimaginable volume.

In the heady trade-off between editorial or commercial and personal work, there emerged a consciousness of the reciprocal influence each had upon the other. Noir film style also played a role in this process, both influencing and affected by still photography. These were champagne days in image culture.

[ … ]

… As they accumulated, the array of different forces that played into the visualization of 1940s New York became more competitive and fractious. With the advent of Cold War anti-Communism and the early McCarthy, old-style social engagement became dangerous and lost its popularity, whatever the sentiments of disaffected radicals. At the same time, the idea of the metropolis as a place to celebrate lost its innocence and began to fade. The solidarity forged by wartime dread was over, to be followed by a fierce peacetime scramble for opening markets and new profits. For photographers, this was an unstable prospect.

… There could be no question that an artistic consciousness had percolated through some photography, guided originally by a documentary aim. Helen Levitt can surely be said to exhibit an artistic temperament, no less than a doctor displays medical tendencies. But how, if at all, were such temperaments to adapt to or be reconciled with the conceptual leadership of new painting and sculpture? Most of the photographers in New York were still more or less loyalists to a descriptive tradition. Into the gap entered the fashion industry, which decisively shook the scene’s pictorial variants into an unlikely new cocktail.

If Harper’s Bazaar had done nothing more to further the cause of American photography than to give Lisette Model (1906-1983) a few breaks, it would have been enough.

… At the time, editors and colleagues regarded Lisette Model as a forward-looking artist by virtue of her pictorial strength, but it was her effrontery that counted more, and proved to be the most modern thing about her. She redefined the documentary mode, introducing motives that could be questioned. Weegee and Model are like bookends to the chapter of photography in 1940s New York. In their work, the stressed optimism of the Photo League, where they were both respected, took on a darker shading.

[line break added]  Weegee went on to a kind of fame, if not fortune; Model was skeptical of fame and experienced steady indigence. Yet, in a slightly delayed action, she inspired a significant following. Without the insights of both these photographers into the unsavory aspects of American society, whether ordained by culture or conditioned by the city, it would be impossible to imagine the candor of the work that was to come.

My most recent previous post from Kozloff’s book is here.




March 21, 2017

Opposite Ends of a Line

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… the presence of someone in one’s space can be disturbing at many levels.

This is from ‘Daumier’ (1961) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… [The] sense of a particular relation between the thing seen and an implied beholder, a beholder with whom we are made to identify ourselves, first occurs in European art around 1600. Caravaggio’s moments of sudden drama are visualized as if seen by someone on the spot — seen, perhaps, or so both the angle of vision and the peculiar sense of amazement suggest, by a wondering or terrified small boy, mirroring the evident emotion of the boy actually present in each of the pair of facing pictures in San Luigi dei Francesi.

… In the nineteenth century, ideas about seeing became the general motive for implying the eyes of a beholder. The very meaning of a Degas resides in the implication that the beholder is a sort of peeping Tom, that of an Ingres in the implication that the women under survey are aware of being looked over, that of a Monet in the implication that the beholder feels as if enveloped by what he is contemplating, that of a Cézanne in the implication that the beholder is compulsively measuring his distance from each successive plane in the scene before him, and so on.

But in Daumier’s paintings there is no implied beholder. Our efforts to re-establish the artist’s attitude with regard to the subject out there in front of him always end in failure. As we bring our concentration to bear on the forms confronting us, we suddenly find that we are no longer looking at them but have been as it were spun round so that we have become them. What was out there is all that is there, contained within itself and accessible to us only through our total identification with its actions and in no other way. The artist has not looked at these figures, he has drawn them as if he were inside them.

Honoré Daumier, Crispin and Scapin, 1958-1960

Daumier has not asked what his subjects look like when behaving in a given way, but what they feel like, within themselves.

Honoré Daumier, The Imaginary Invalid, before 1979

Next is from ‘Caro‘ (1986):

… What has been happening since 1973 is typified by one simple technical specification — that usually the steel has no longer been painted but has been allowed to rust and then been varnished. To make a steel sculpture and paint it with an overall flat color is to confirm that it is an artificial construction made out of industrial material, is to affirm that it is an entity in opposition to nature, is to ensure that it will resist the depredations of natural forces;

[line break added] to make a steel sculpture and let it rust is to modify its man-made look by inviting nature to play a part in its making, is to ensure that something other than human choices and human unconscious needs will determine what it is, is to affirm that art and nature are not opposite sides of a coin but opposite ends of a line. And all this is not just a question of method or ideology: its consequences are very concrete and crudely palpable. Put a painted sculpture in a field and it stands out like a pillar box; put a rusted sculpture in a field and it harmonizes like a lizard with its surroundings.

Anthony Caro, National Gallery Ledge Piece, 1978

And this is from ‘Kossoff’ (1995):

Kossoff has a Rembrantesque acceptance of the human clay. And it is an acceptance: his nudes often have a superficial resemblance to certain German Expressionist nudes, but these are there to play roles which the artist has assigned to them; Kossoff’s nudes are not characters, they are beings who are there to be looked at. The paintings are not about the meaning of these women in the artist’s mind, they are about the presence of these women in the artist’s space.

Added to that Kossoff piece is a section called ‘Afterthoughts’:

… Kossoff’s nude women — no, naked women — have a marked and curious unease. They convey to an unusual degree some of the tensions that can exist between a sitter and the artist who is making his relentless demands on her endurance. They also seem to me to convey curious anxieties in the painter. I said in the catalog text that these paintings are not about the meaning of these women in the artist’s mind but about the presence of these women in the artist’s space.

[line break added] That is too glib. It underestimated the degree to which the presence of someone in one’s space can be disturbing at many levels. There is something in the atmosphere of these paintings that calls to my mind the unease that filled the room from which exit was impossible in Sartre’s Huis Clos. As the play put it: ‘Hell is other people.’ Kossoff the man is something of a soul in torment.

Leon Kossoff, Cathy, 1998

Tension and disquiet between artist and model are mere overtones in these recent nudes; they are absolutely central to the Two Seated Figures of 1962 and the Nude on a Red Bed of November-December 1972, the large paintings which represent Kossoff in the Biennale’s anthological exhibition compiled by Jean Clair, Identitàe Alterità. With the extreme drama of their mood and the extreme violence of their facture, these have the look of expressionist pictures.

Leon Kossoff, Nude on a Red Bed, 1972 [there are several pictures with this title and date]

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.




March 20, 2017

The Viewer’s Eye Is Tested

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The obvious oppositions … can be deciphered and then consumed with the gourmet’s pleasure …

This is from Volker Rattemayer’s essay found in the catalog, Robert Mangold: Paintings and Drawings 1984-1997 (1999):

… What interests him in painting from the very beginning was the idea of the painting as a wall or a part of a wall — a phenomenon manifested historically in cave painting and stone inscriptions, mosaics and frescoes. The painting should be seen as a wall, said Robert Mangold in his studio notes in 1992, a wall to which one related in a physical way but which one could neither enter nor reify.

[line break added] Thus Mangold always regarded the very things which motivate other painters of the sixties to turn away from painting in favor of the object — the restriction of the painting to the two dimensions of height and width or, in other words, the planar, surface qualities of the painting — as its particular strength.

Mangold’s early objective was a systematic investigation of two-dimensional pictorial space with respect to the elements of form, color, line, material and surface. He was fascinated by the prospect of discovering the qualities from which a painting derives tension.

Robert Mangold, Ring Image E, 2009

[ … ]

… With his reductive method, Robert Mangold has created a new type of painting, a genuine innovation in abstract art. He has developed the interplay of outline form and interior form, color area and drawn line, color and surface structure into a dynamic network of inter-relationships without sacrifice to the clear, overall effect of the whole. The balance achieved among the elements of form and color, area and line is an integral part of the specific content of each painting.

[line break added] Their logic derives from the fact that the irregularities of the individual elements cancel each other out. No single element is ever emphasized so strongly that the others become secondary. And all other functions that do not enhance the effective power of the painted surface in its frontality and wholeness are eliminated.

Mangold’s painting seeks to sensitize the viewer. His paintings address the intellect and the emotions in equal measure. They demand precise and thorough examination. The viewer participates in the work of art as a perceiving subject and is challenged to reorganize his perceptions as his gaze wanders over the painting’s surface, across the wall on which the painting is placed and through the space that surrounds the pictures.

[line break added] The obvious oppositions — the dialectic tensions between line and structure and between color and surface — that characterize the works of Mangold can be deciphered and then consumed with the gourmet’s pleasure, provided the viewer is prepared to go beyond a superficial inspection and allow the painterly opulence, the beauty, the sophistication and the cleverly integrated little perceptual obstacles to work their magic upon him.

Paintings from past centuries cannot be read, interpreted and perceived with pleasure and new insight unless the subject matter and the meaning of the ordinarily pictorial representations can be deciphered. The works of Mangold require no prior knowledge of iconography. Yet they do demand an attitude of openness towards a complex and highly cultivated kind of painting which not only examines fundamental elements of the medium itself but also offers exemplary object lessons in seeing and thinking. The viewer’s eye is tested by the links established between obvious opposites. The paintings tend not only to delude the eye but to expose errors in the perception of relationships involving form and color, area and line.




March 19, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… If he did no more than imagine it, if he played merely for the sake of experiencing this life from within — the way children play — and did not shape it through an activity that approaches it from outside, he would not be an artist.

Continuing through the essay ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ in Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (1990):

… A man who has grown accustomed to dreaming about himself in concrete terms — a man who strives to visualize the external image of himself, who is morbidly sensitive about the outward impression he produces and yet is insecure about that impression and easily wounded in his pride — such a man loses the proper, purely inner stance in relation to his own body. He becomes awkward, “unwieldy,” and does not know what to do with his hands and feet.

[line break added] This occurs because an indeterminate other intrudes upon his movements and gestures and a second principle of axiological comportment toward himself arises for him: the context of his self-consciousness is muddled by the context of the other‘s consciousness of him, and his inner body is confronted by an outer body that is divorced from him — an outer body living in the eyes of the other.

… This life — my own life as recreated in my imagination — will be filled with finished and indelible images of other people in all their externally intuitable completeness (with images of others who are close and dear to me, and even with images of people I have only met in passing). The external image of myself, however, will not be present among them. My own face will be absent from among all these unique, inimitable faces. What will correspond here to my own I are the recollections, the re-experiencings of purely inner happiness, anguish, regret, desires, strivings, that pervade this intuited world of others.

[line break added] That is, I shall recall my own inner attributes in particular circumstances of my life, but not my own outer image. All of the plastic and pictorial values (colors, tones, forms, lines, images, gestures, postures, faces, and so forth) will be distributed between the object-world and the world of other people, whereas I myself shall enter this world as an invisible bearer of those emotional-volitional tones which issue from the unique and active axiological position I have assumed in this world and which imbue this world with a particular coloration.

[ … ]

… The actor is aesthetically creative only when he produces and shapes from outside the image of the hero into whom he will later “reincarnate” himself, that is, when he creates the hero as a distinct whole and creates this whole not in isolation, but as a constituent in the whole of a drama. In other words, the actor is aesthetically creative only when he is an author — or to be exact: a co-author, a stage director, and an active spectator of the portrayed hero and of the whole play (we could use an “equals” sign here, after discounting certain mechanical factors: the author = the director = the actor).

[line break added] For, just as much as the author and the director, the actor creates a particular hero in association with the artistic whole of a play, as a constituent in that whole. It should be evident that, when he does so, the whole of the play is no longer perceived from within the hero himself as the ongoing event of his life, i.e. it is no longer perceived as the horizon of his life. Rather, it is perceived as the environment of the hero’s life from the standpoint of an aesthetically active author/contemplator situated outside the hero, and this environment includes features that are transgredient to the hero’s consciousness.

The artistic image of the hero is created by the actor before a mirror, before a director, on the basis of his own stock of experience. [ … ] All this [makeup, costume, demeanor, character] is done by the actor in association with the artistic whole of the play (and not the event of the hero’s life), in this context, the actor is an artist. In this context, the actor’s aesthetic self-activity is directed to giving form to a human being as a hero and to giving form to his life.

[line break added] When, on the other hand, the actor, in playing his role, “reincarnates” himself in the hero, then all these constituents of forming the hero from outside become transgredient to the actor’s consciousness and experiencing as the hero (let us assume that the “reincarnation” is accomplished in its purest form). The form of the body as shaped from outside, its movements and positions, etc. — all these constituents will have artistic validity only for the consciousness of a contemplator — within the artistic whole of the play, not within the experienced life of the hero.

Of course, in the actual work of an actor, all these abstractly isolated constituents intertwine, and in this sense his playacting represents a concrete and living aesthetic event. The actor is an artist in the full sense of the term: all the constituents of an artistic whole are represented in his work, except that at the moment of playacting the center of gravity is displaced into the inner experiences of the hero as a human being, as the subiectum of lived life.

[line break added] That is, the center of gravity is displaced into that extra-aesthetic matter which had been actively shaped earlier by the actor himself qua author and stage director. At the moment of “reincarnation,” he becomes passive material (passive in relation to aesthetic self-activity) — he becomes a life in that artistic whole which he had himself earlier created and which is now being actualized by the spectator; in relation to this aesthetic self-activity of the spectator, the actor’s entire activity of living and experiencing as the hero is passive.

The actor both imagines a life and images it in his playacting. If he did no more than imagine it, if he played merely for the sake of experiencing this life from within — the way children play — and did not shape it through an activity that approaches it from outside, he would not be an artist. At best, he would be a sound but passive instrument in the hands of an artist (the director, the author, and the active spectator).

My most recent previous post from Bakhtin’s book is here.




March 18, 2017

I Am Not Asking for Reverence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but a world, which, while it lasts, seems more real and solid than this daily existence …

This is from the essay ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’ by E.M. Forster found in The Hogarth Essays (1928):

Do you know who a book’s by?

The question is more profound and even more literary than may appear. A poem for example: do we gain more or less pleasure from it when we know the name of the poet? The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, for example. No one knows who wrote Sir Patrick Spens. It comes to us out of the northern void like a breath of ice. Set beside it another ballad whose author is known — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

[line break added] That, too, contains a tragic voyage and the breath of ice, but it is signed Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and we know a certain amount about this Coleridge. Coleridge signed other poems and knew other poets; he ran away from Cambridge; he enlisted as a Dragoon under the name of Trooper Comerback, but fell so constantly from his horse that it had to be withdrawn from beneath him permanently; he was employed instead upon matters relating to sanitation; he married Southey’s sister, and gave lectures ; he became stout, pious, and dishonest, took opium and died.

[line break added] With such information in our heads, we speak of the Ancient Mariner as “a poem by Coleridge,” but of Sir Patrick Spens as “a poem.” What difference, if any, does this difference between them make upon our minds? And in the case of novels, and plays — does ignorance or knowledge of their authorship signify?

… Books are composed of words, ,and words have two functions to perform: they give information or they create an atmosphere. Often they do both, for the two functions are not incompatible, but our enquiry shall keep them distinct. Let us turn for our next example to Public Notices. There is a word that is sometimes hung up at the edge of a tramline: the word “Stop.”

[line break added] Written on a metal label by the side of the line, it means that a train should stop here presently. It is an example of pure information. It creates no atmosphere — at least, not in my mind. I stand close to the label and wait and wait for the tram. If the tram comes, the information is correct; if it doesn’t come, the information is incorrect; but in either case it remains information, and the notice is an excellent instance of one of the uses of words.

Compare it with another public notice which is sometimes exhibited in the darker cities of England: “Beware of pickpockets, male and female.” Here, again, there is information. A pickpocket may come along presently, just like a tram, and we take our measures accordingly. But there is something else besides. Atmosphere is created. Who can see those words without a slight sinking feeling at the heart? All the people around look so honest and nice, but they are not, some of them are pickpockets, male or female.

[ … ]

… What is this element in words that is not information? I have called it “atmosphere,” but it requires stricter definition than that. It resides not in any particular word, but in the order in which words are arranged — that is to say, in style. It is the power that words have to raise our emotions or quicken our blood. It is also something else, and to define that other thing would be to explain the secret of the universe. This “something else” in words in undefinable.

[line break added] It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but a world, which, while it lasts, seems more real and solid than this daily existence of pickpockets and trams. Before we begin to read the Ancient Mariner we know that the Polar Seas are not inhabited by spirits, and that if a man shoots an albatross he is not a criminal but a sportsman, and that if he stuffs the albatross afterwards he becomes a naturalist also. All this is common knowledge.

[line break added] But when we are reading the Ancient Mariner, or remembering it intensely, common knowledge disappears and uncommon knowledge takes its place. We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it is accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself. Information is relative. A poem is absolute.

[line break added] The world created by words exists neither in space nor time though it has semblances to both, it is eternal and indestructible, and yet its action is no stronger than a flower: it is adamant, yet it is also what one of its practitioners thought it to be, namely, the shadow of a shadow. We can best define it by negations. It is not this world, its laws are not the laws of science or logic, its conclusions not those of common sense. And it causes us to suspend our ordinary judgments.

Now comes the crucial point. While we are reading the Ancient Mariner we forget our astronomy and geography and daily ethics. Do we not also forget the author? Does not Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lecturer, opium eater, and dragoon, disappear with the rest of the world of information? We remember him before we begin the poem and after we finish it, but during the poem nothing exists but the poem. Consequently while we read the Ancient Mariner a change takes place in it. It becomes anonymous, like the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.

… Just as words have two functions — information and creation — so each human mind has two personalities, one on the surface, one deeper down. The upper personality has a name. It is called S.T. Coleridge, or William Shakespeare, or Mrs. Humphrey Ward. It is conscious and alert, it does things like dining out, answering letters, etc., and it differs vividly and amusingly from other personalities. The lower personality is a very queer affair. In many ways it is a perfect fool, but without it there is no literature, because, unless a man dips a bucket down into it occasionally he cannot produce a first-class work. There is something general about it. Although it is inside S.T. Coleridge, it cannot be labeled with his name.

… The poet wrote the poem no doubt, but he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read. What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse. Lost in the beauty where he was lost, we find more than we ever threw away, we reach what seems to be our spiritual home, and remember that it was not the speaker who was in the beginning but the Word.

… I am not asking for reverence. Reverence is fatal to literature. My plea is for something more vital: imagination. Imagination is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal passion (Shelley). Imagination is our only guide into the world created by words.

[line break added] Whether those words are signed or unsigned becomes, as soon as the imagination redeems us, a matter of no importance, because we have approximated to the state in which they were written, and there are no names down there, no personality as we understand personality, no marrying or giving in marriage. What there is down there — ah, that is another enquiry, and may the clergyman and the scientist pursue it more successfully in the future than they have in the past.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




March 17, 2017

There’s a Lot You Don’t Keep

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… Malvina watched her cousin, Herbert Hazeltine, draw. He said, “There’s a lot you don’t keep.”

Last few bits from various different late writings, found in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore edited by Patricia C. Willis (1986):

… Combine with charmed words certain rhythms, and the mind is helplessly haunted. In his poem, “The Small,” Theodore Roethke says:

A wind moves through the grass,
Then all is as it was.

[ … ]

… In declining an invitation to the Jefferson birthday dinner of 1859, he [Abraham Lincoln] wrote, “The principles of Jefferson are the axioms of a free society. One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies.’ ” And in combating repeal of the Missouri Compromise (which would have ended slavery), he said, “Repeal the Missouri Compromise — repeal all compromises — repeal the Declaration of Independence — repeal all history — you cannot repeal human nature.”

[ … ]

… Among assets that one cannot ignore is the power of concentration. A preamble on television or snatch of phonograph music is not part of it [i.e. is not what Moore means. Rather:] Are you able to ignore a disparaging comment, insult, slander? Smother your desire for revenge? Make allowance for the defiant salesman who writes, goes on writing and will not look up? The traffic man hardened to explanation? The asset of assets was summed up by Confucius when asked, “Is there a single principle that you practice through life to the end?” He said, ” … What you don’t want, don’t inflict on others.”

[ … ]

… Robert Frost’s “commitment to oppositions” is made emphatic, his “temperamental bias seen in his love of irony and ‘doubleness’ ” producing metaphors which in having two meanings at once, are puns. ” ‘The philosopher values himself on the inconsistencies he can contain by main force,’ ” he said. ” ‘They are two ends of a strut that keeps his mind from collapsing’ .”

… Of the swiftness of the current, Mr. Frost says in “The Master Speed”:

And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still —

a “poem of faith … in mind and character,” Mr. Brower calls it, “of firmness in the face of terror.”

[ … ]

… James G. Crowell, headmaster of the Brearley School, said of seaweed and grasses he collected, “Many look at them. You must look into and through them and make them part of yourself.” Malvina watched her cousin, Herbert Hazeltine, draw. He said, “There’s a lot you don’t keep.”

[ … ]

… Even a touch of affectation would have spoiled it — what he [Randall Jarrell] says in “The Lost World” of himself as a child, reading at bedtime, “Forced out of life into / Bed.” Safe in his naturalness, he says, “I’m not afraid,” and goes on [reading] in his glow of gratitude to existence:

There off Sunset, in the lamplit starlight
A scientist is getting ready to destroy
The world. “It’s time for you to say good night,”
Mama tells me; I go on in breathless joy.
“Remember, tomorrow is a school day,”
Mama tells me; I go on in breathless joy.

………… Then I go back
To my bedroom; I read as I undress.
The scientist is ready to attack.
Mama calls out, “Is your light out?” I call back, “Yes,”
And turn the light out.

[ … ]

… Tomorrow? The Italians have a saying: “It’s a queer bee that makes honey only for itself.” To what life and fashion principle may one adhere? Confucius, translated by Ezra Pound, said, “Sympathy.”

My most recent previous post from Moore’s book is here.




March 16, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:16 am

… why is modern art, which compels us to take our inner life more seriously, in some sense, not avowable?

Continuing through Worldview in Painting — Art and Society by Meyer Schapiro (1999):

… Let us consider the attitude of the [modern] artist toward his profession and his work. Is it different from that of an artist of the fifteenth or sixteenth century? [ … ] The modern artist is committed to the idea of endless invention and growth. He is haunted by the notion that his way of working in 1950 cannot be the way in which he worked in 1940. He has an ideal of permanent revolution in art.

… Even if the artist cannot make a revolution in art, he is committed to the notion that the practice of painting is not the conservation of a style or of a way of working, that one does not create a method in order to then live by it and perfect it. The artist must be ceaselessly open to new possibilities and suggestions and is impelled by a restlessness and conception of integrity to search for means of developing and surmounting his actual style. In that respect he is like the most advanced natural scientists and mathematicians, who feel that there are always latent in problems unforeseen relationships that, if disclosed, would at once require a complete opening of the whole field and a change in their habits of thought.

[line break added] He is like them in his willingness to entertain the most absurd and contradictory possibilities concerning his problems; even at the expense of his sanity with respect to all that he has done before, it is worth trying, and he is dissatisfied unless he has tried and discovered what might come out of it. The result may be a failure, in which case he buries the object and turns to something else.

But that attitude of constant self-transformation and growth has room for an ever-widening possibility and the conviction that the materials of the artist, even though they are limited by unmodified conditions of perception and human nature, nevertheless, are so structured, so bound up with contingencies and unknowns, that we are certain that sooner or later something new will emerge. And that commitment, which is sometimes disparaged as an arrogant urge for originality of any sort, is hardly that at all.

[line break added] Just as one would not criticize a physicist for trying to be original because he is constantly making new experiments or searching for a more generalized formulation of a theory, so we must admit that for the modern artist this commitment to permanent inventiveness or searching of his means is of the very essence of his profession. And it is a source of the artist’s dignity, whether he is a good or a bad artist. It means that he is a live artist, and a live human being, that all his senses are working, and that he is open to new possibilities and suggestions of his medium.

[ … ]

… why is modern art so disturbing to people? Aren’t we, after all, living in a world of freedom and individuality? Why under these circumstances and with this acceptance of the underlying values of modern art and of creativeness as vested in the individual, and in theory possible for everyone, why does this art strike the director of the Metropolitan Museum as meaningless or pornographic?

[line break added] Why does it disturb the president of the country, the former dictator of Germany, and the present dictator of Russia? There must be something very strange about it that keeps this art from reaching the world for which it was destined. Is it because, after all, we do not hold these values? Is it possible that we are not really devoted to spiritual freedom? Or that freedom in art is too difficult or dangerous for us?

… why is modern art, which compels us to take our inner life more seriously, in some sense, not avowable? We have feelings of guilt or tension with respect to precisely that exploration of the self that the artist is willing to face directly and to evoke in his work. It leaves us uneasy; it brings into the foreground the real disparity between our inner demands and our actuality.

My most recent previous post from Schapiro’s book is here.




March 15, 2017

As It Manifests Its Power

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:00 am

… Where would memory, or its regrets, fit into this scheme of things?

Continuing through New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff (2002):

… [In Weegee’s work] A vision of the city emerges in which flesh and its entanglements become the chief, unauthorized subject.

… For him, the city was like a strip show gone bananas.

Extreme spectacles involved him less, however, than the uncontrolled reactions to which they gave rise. Try as he might to arrange matters according to his sarcastic intent, it was the sheer random, ill-assorted, and unaware display of consciousness that carried him through the night. Much of what he saw and then concentrated on, with visual smarts, was marginal to the dire occasion. Eventually, the narrative impulse of the reporter gave way to a new understanding that stories themselves simply dissolved into the industrious chaos of the metropolis.

Weegee, The First Murder, 1945

[ … ]

Feininger gave his complete attention to each of his subjects, one at a time, delivered through crisp outlines and the richest gamut of black and white. The wares, products, and blandishments of metropolitan commerce are clogged and stacked for immediate purchase and use. New York, as he judges it, is a warehouse of supply and demand, constantly replenished. What’s startling and funny about Feininger’s picture of a raunchy Times Square movie theater, with “sexy” posters, is his view of it as just one more output of entrepreneurial spectacle.

Andreas Feininger, West 42nd Street, 1940

Feininger and Weegee were very different personalities who nevertheless had in common an idea of New York as a man’s town, a place where men slaked their appetites and produced the goods. Weegee often differentiated social milieu: he mocked the cultural pretensions of the upper class, showed his affection for blacks, and identified with the drunks at Sammy’s of the Bowery. For his part, Feininger performed as a dignified booster who had much in common with the Byron Company.

[line bread added] The classes are again just human strata; folkloric bits add their charm, while the city overall swaggers as it manifests its power. Where would memory, or its regrets, fit into this scheme of things? Or, for that matter, aspiration? New York was not changing, as Berenice Abbott supposed in the 1930s: it had already changed. In the form given to us by Feininger, it appears to us as an immense, solidified now.

… Though the legacy of Andreas Feininger had nowhere to go except into cliché, he put the finishing touches to New York, as an indelible icon at its historical zenith.

My most recent previous post from Kozloff’s book is here.




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