Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)

Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)


Zbigniew Herbert

We walk by the sea-shore
holding firmly in our hands
the two ends of an antique dialogue
—do you love me?
—I love you

with furrowed eyebrows
I summarize all wisdom
of the two testaments
astrologers prophets
philosophers of the gardens
and cloistered philosophers

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denying dunedin

October 28, 2012

Maurice Utrillo, “Rue du Mont Cenis” (1910)

In 1966 a forty-year-old James K. Baxter returned to the University of Otago, having that year published one of his most successful collections, Pig Island Letters.  Yet the memories and landscapes surrounding his adolescence are not revisited with the same elaborate abstractions that characterized his early verse.  In “Travelling to Dunedin,” Baxter begins to use the unrhymed couplets that will become the dominant medium of his late work.

We ride south on a Wednesday

Into the clearer weather, 

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“on mirror mirrored”

September 24, 2012

Norah McGuinness, “First Snow” (1949)

In On the Boiler (1939), W.B. Yeats’s Swiftian impersonation of a “mad ship’s carpenter” in Sligo who used to stand on a boiler to denounce his neighbors, the poet (or the collapsing mind of the speaker) rails against the degeneration of European culture.  The customs and ceremonies of old Europe–including, but not restricted to, the smashed Big House culture in Ireland that Yeats had relied on for so many years–were being degraded by commercial production and fetishized by fascism.  But for Yeats there was no going back, or rather, there was only going back.   The mechanization of art was itself an irreversible return to the originating moment of the Western form of life.  “There are moments when I am certain,” Yeats wrote

that arts must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured.  

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The unemployed in Ford Madox Brown’s “Work” (1865)

‘Enterprise and effort,’ he would say to us (on his back), ‘are delightful to me.  I believe I am truly cosmopolitan.  I have the deepest sympathy with them.  I lie in a shady place like this, and think of adventurous spirits going to the North Pole, or penetrating to the heart of the Torrid Zone, with admiration.  Mercenary creatures ask, “What is the use of a man’s going to the North Pole!  What good does it do?”  I can’t say; but, for anything I can say, he may go for the purpose–thought he don’t know it–of employing my thoughts as I lie here. 

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“strange systems”

June 11, 2012

In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams wrote that

the abstraction of art has been its promotion or relegation to an area of special experience (emotion, beauty, phantasy, the imagination, the unconscious), which art in practice has never confined itself to, ranging in fact from the most ordinary daily activities to exceptional crises and intensities, and using a range of means from the words of the street and common popular stories to strange systems and images which it has yet been able to make common property (39).

Poetry, for example, often stows words from etymologically distinct orders within newly concrete constellations, freezing a piece of roadside sediment into the recognizable machinery of metaphorical or rhetorical conventions from a different language.

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nose and muscles

June 8, 2012

Edgar Degas, “Landscape: Cows in the Foreground” (c.1890-1893): “I decided to be Degas for a day” begins one of Ives’ plays — so what faculties or what muscles would I use? How are these haunches in this environment?

“Who would not rather walk,” blazes Wyndham Lewis in big print in Blast, “ten miles across country (yes, ten miles, my friend), and use his eyes, nose and muscles, than possess ten thousand Impressionist oil-paintings of that country side?” (Blast No. 1, 1914, 130).  The only thing better than fully using those sense organs and body movers is something “very abstruse and splendid” but nonetheless driven by “NECESSITY.”  The Impressionists, Lewis sneers, were too enthralled by a particular “sensibility” associated with “Life” to progress very far beyond the realist Daumier, who combined “great plastic gifts with great literary gifts.”  Degas, Lewis writes, offered a few moderately useful innovations, but overall tended to mislead his followers into decadence.

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To whom is the scene in Legros’s “Le Repas des Pauvres” (1877) being presented? Why are these things being shown “to me”?

The French these days, reported Muriel Ciolkowska to readers of The Egoist in 1915, do not read newspapers for information.  In Paris newspapers are “read to be disbelieved, or, rather, to be interpreted.”  Every reader decodes the news in their own way and whispers the truth to neighbors with the consequence that “a ghost-gazette is born and is echoed about the town, as regularly and as persistently as the newspapers.”  No one knows where exactly it takes form, writes Ciolkowska, but when it emerges from its occult origins “it cuts its way through from the highest to the lowest and neither space nor time offer any obstacle to the progress of its mysterious, tenacious, subterranean or superterrestrial course” (62).  Parisians’ everyday reading habits blend history with fiction and fiction with history, making the dissemination of information about the war a matter of, as Ciolkowska puts it, conjuring and witchcraft.

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aphasic style (I)

January 20, 2012

Jack Yeats, "Seek No Further"

In “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” Roman Jakobson famously grouped the varieties of aphasia around two poles: selection/substitution (“the similarity disorder”) and combination/contexture (“the contiguity disorder”) (1152).  According to Jakobson, the similarity disorder makes metaphor “alien,” and the contiguity disorder has a parallel effect on metonymy.  “In a well-known psychological test,” Jakobson writes,

children are confronted with some noun and told to utter the first verbal response that comes into their heads.  In this experiment two opposite linguistic predilections are invariably exhibited: the response is intended either as a substitute for or as a complement to the stimulus (1153).

The children’s substitutive or complementary (predicative) responses were then also distinguished by different aspects, either positional or semantic.  By “manipulating” such connections and aspects “an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences” (1153).  Jakobson’s highly suggestive account of the emergence of a “personal style” offers a striking contrast with contemporaneous accounts like Kenneth Burke’s essays in the 1950s and Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life (1959), which stressed the scene of style, or Theodor Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society” (1957), which meditated on the nonidentity of language and experience.

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Writing to Harriet Weaver Shaw in 1916, Joyce provides, with studied casualness, a few “biographical items” that had been requested by his publisher (Ellmann, Selected Letters, 222; the moderately ironic quotation marks are Joyce’s).  Noting that “I suppose that is what he means,” Joyce encloses a brief account of his writing, including a judiciously placed bit of retrospective precociousness:  Under the subheading “Irish Literary Theatre,” Joyce writes that Yeats “invited me to write a play for his theatre and I promised to do so in ten years” (223).  Conveniently, Joyce had begun drafting Exiles in 1913 while living in Trieste.  Whether or not Exiles was anything like the play Joyce had in mind when Yeats asked him to write, Joyce evidently hoped, in 1916, that it would be interpreted as such.

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a winter’s tale

December 14, 2011

Old Tabley Hall (demolished 1927)

On December 9th, 1872, A.J. Munby sent a letter to Charles Darwin, furnishing one of the many heterogenous reports from across the British empire that the famous naturalist would use to theorize emotional expression.  Munby, a prolific diarist, had been collecting images of working-class women for twenty years: sketches, descriptions, and photographs, with varying degrees of critical distance and sensationalizing staging.  His letter, which Darwin appends in a footnote to the revised edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, is called “a graphic description of terror,” but it reads today like a case study in the eroticization of class relations and the materiality of affective states in Victorian narrative.  Or a kind of ghost story turned inside out, so that that the mysterious stranger is no longer an enchanting figure we are alternately attracted to and repelled by, but a voyeur-position for a particular sort of observer (a situation I’m tempted to describe as taken, rather than possessed).

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