Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Something I Read #7 – Coleridge

Actually, "something I re-read while typing notes and excerpts into the computer from something I read not to long ago." But that's a minor detail.

This from Biographia Literaria, from the second of "Satyrane's Letters," which are situated in between chapters 22 and 23 (pages 186-87 in the Engell and Bate Collected Works edition).

Hold! (methinks I hear the spokesman of the crowd reply, and we will listen to him. I am the plaintiff, and he is the defendant.)

DEFENDANT: Hold! are not our modern sentimental plays filled with the best Christian morality?

PLAINTIFF: Yes! just as much of it, and just that part of it which you can exercise without a single Christian virtue – without a single sacrifice that is really painful to you! – just as much as flatters you, sends you away pleased with your own hearts, and quite reconciled to your vices, which can never be thought very ill of, when they keep such good company, and walk hand in hand with so much compassion and generosity; adulation so loathsome, that you would spit in the man’s face who dared offer it to you in a private company, unless you interpreted it as insulting irony, you appropriate with infinite satisfaction, when you share the garbage with the whole stye, and gobble it out of a common trough. No [187] Caesar must pace your boards – no Antony, no royal Dane, no Orestes, no Andromache! –

D. No: or as few of them as possible. What plain citizen of London, or Hamburg, to do with your kings and queens, and your old school-boy Pagan heroes? Besides, every body knows the stories: and what curiosity can we feel ------

P. What, Sir, not for the manner? not for the delightful language of the poet? not for the situations, the action and reaction of the passions?

D. You are hasty, Sir! the only curiosity, we feel, is in the story: and how can we be anxious concerning the end of a play, or be surprized by it, when we know how it will turn out?

P. Your pardon, for having interrupted you! we no understand each other. You seek then, in a tragedy, which wise men of old held for the highest effort of human genius, the same gratification, as that you receive from a new novel, the last German romance, and other dainties of the day, which can be enjoyed but once. If you carry these feelings to the sister art of Painting, Michael Angelo’s Sistene Chapel, and the Scripture Gallery of Raphael, can expect no favour from you. You know all about them beforehand; and are, doubtless, more familiar with the subjects of those paintings, than with the tragic tales of the historic or heroic ages. There is consistency, therefore, in your preference of contemporary writers: for the great men of former times, those at least who were deemed great by our ancestors, sought so little to gratify this kind of curiosity, that they seemed to have regarded the story in a not much higher light, than the painter regards his canvass: as that on not by, which they were to display their appropriate excellence.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Something I Read #6 – Harold Bloom

— To note: three words in a phrase set off by dashes near the end, and a note at the end was added after first posting
— second note added 10/28/2014


From my observations of MFA world and the culture of pop-poetry that it has been participant in creating, and of articles written by members and defenders of that culture, it seems to me the contemporary culture of poetry is greatly flawed if not marked by an inability to discern between good and bad poetry (good and bad literature). Though, immediately I admit that it is undeniable that the terms "good" and "bad" are wholly insufficient if not misleading – which is why I try to avoid using them. Eliot in his essays makes the distinction between "sham" and "genuine" poetry: a distinction I have found very useful. In this essay, "The Breaking of Form"{FN], Bloom uses the distinction between "weak" and "strong" poetry (and "weak" and "strong" reading): taken from within the context of the essay, something I am also finding very useful.

[FN] The essay is found in Deconstruction and Criticism (Continuum, 1979). ------------------------------------

The essay falls back for grounding upon a group of Bloom's books (beginning with Anxiety of Influence), which I have either not read or not read any time recently, so I know I am not as fully engaged with ideas as can be had. But nonetheless it is proving an interesting read. Here are three, inter-related moments from early on, where he sets up and gives substance to the ideas of "weak" and "strong":

Whether one accepts a theory of language that teaches the dearth of meaning, as in Derrida and de Man, or that teaches its plenitude, as in Barfield and Ong, does not seem to me to matter. All I ask is that the theory of language be extreme and uncompromising enough. Theory of poetry, as I pursue it, is reconcilable with either extreme view of poetic language, though not with any views in between. Either the new poet fights to win freedom from dearth, or from plenitude, but if the antagonist be moderate, then the agon will not take place, and no fresh sublimity will be won. Only the agon is of the essence. (4-5)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of 12 years a Slave

I posted this originally to the Poetry Daily Critique blog back in August to see the blog could handle expanding into letting film be part of the conversation, as cinema is (and for me has been) commonly a subject of study in theory. Once posted, though, it was obvious the blog could not handle the expansion. So I pulled the post off and held it until I had opened the Adversaria, here.

As with most long articles on this blog, it is also up on the Cabinet, here.


It should be obvious to anyone who has the films that 12 Years a Slave is, visually, heavily influenced by the style of Terrence Malick's recent work. It may, however, be but a kindness to us in that sentence the word influenced. The film nearly grunts for its effort to maintain the pacing, visuals, and general ambiance of Malick's work. It was not infrequent while watching 12 Years a Slave that I felt the want of the film to be like (or to become) The Thin Red Line.[FN] All the film needed in its visual reveries was the meditative voice-overs to complete the illusion (or transformation), which did arrive at the scene where Epps -- the primary slaveowning character of the film -- is looking over his worm infested field, a sequence that could not be more Malick and this time with the voice over, the only one in the film of which I have memory, about being visited by a plague.

[FN] It should be noted here that I have not yet seen To the Wonder, and I have only seen parts of Tree of Life. My focusing here on The Thin Red Line as stylistic source material is, however, not weakened by that want. I have watched The New World a couple of times, and it is to The Thin Red Line that 12 Years a Slave continuously pulls me. Indeed, the argument I present below does have an avenue for expansion through the shared themes of violence in the two films and how they are handled visually.

However, the dialog turns upon itself when Epps pulls away from any meditativeness and switches to the blunt, nearly non-sequitur casting of blame for the plague upon the "godless" slaves working the field. It is a statement that makes little sense within the context established thus far, which is why I found it so jarring. At the point, at that moment, the film makes it quite clear to anyone paying attention – though, in truth, if you were paying attention you recognized this far earlier, the plague sequence merely the most overt stating of the fact – that 12 Years a Slave is neither influenced by nor in creative engagement with Malick's style but merely mimicking it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The G.K. Chesterton Society and Nietzsche

Recently, an FB posting brought to my attention this video about G.K. Chesterton and his writings/thoughts on Nietzsche (here).

Before I continue, let me give you the necessary preamble of biases. I have read most of Nietzsche's works, and most of those more than once. He is one of my more familiar companions to my explorations. As for Chesterton, because of FB I have seen some passing references to him and to the G.K. Chesterton Society; but, I cannot say (up until these last days) that I have ever read anything by him, or knew anything about him beyond that he was Catholic, that he was the author of the Father Brown stories, and that he had written some other works which people have considered valuable enough that it merited forming a G.K. Chesterton Society. And if you are reading that as an underhand jab at the Society you are reading it wrong; I am speaking only my complete ignorance about the man. This video, then, was my first real introduction to Chesterton.

Also, understand that my intent here is to approach that video and Chesterton's comments on Nietzsche from the outside, as an external observer of Chesterton, Ahlquist, and the culture of Chestertonism. I will refrain from speaking directly out of Nietzsche, from taking up the argument from the opposing side. That is until the very end, where I will not be able to resist pulling in Nietzsche for one moment, as a kind of flourish when I bring this to a close. I am not here going to try to defend Nietzsche against Chesterton. My want here is to take the video in a somewhat different direction.


The video is an excerpt from an episode of G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, a series about Chesterton that was (is?) broadcast on EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), a global, Catholic network. (If I have come upon EWTN previously, I do not remember the event.) The YouTube page tells me it is from season 6, so apparently this is a popular show on EWTN. (Imdb tells me it was first broadcast in 2000.) I believe the series is produced by the G.K. Chesterson Society, under the oversight of Dale Ahlquist (who speaks in the excerpt), the president and co-founder of the G.K. Chesterson Society. The series is, as I understand it, a presentation of the writings and thought of Chesterton, one which frequently dramatizes the engagements, as here.

If I have it right, Chesterton only wrote about Nietzsche in passing in various works. He never wrote an essay specifically about Nietzsche. What we have here in this video excerpt are some of those various moments gathered together. Likewise, most of what is spoken here by the Nietzsche character, when broken down into its separate elements, can be found to be fairly close to what you would find in his books, or at least (and this is what really matters) they are echoes enough of familiar phrases of Nietzsche.

But the use the words of Nietzsche is pretty much where the clip's relationship to Nietzsche and his writings ends.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Something I Read #5 — Sontag, "Against Interpretation"

I've been doing a bit grab-off-the-shelf, spot reading, and today opened to Sontag's "Against Interpretation" in an anthology of criticism/theory. (It is a repeatedly anthologized piece, and with reason. And I have the book, yes, but it is apparently somewhere in a box.)

This is not a famous moment; but, a worthwhile moment.

[. . .] Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought. ("Never trust the teller, trust the tale," said Lawrence.) Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen,


If I were to chose one text . . . . well that's an absurdity, as I could begin a quip about Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy with the same words. But there is a truth in the phrase in that if I were making a class on literary/theory criticism, I would be faced with that question: "If I were to chose a handful of texts, necessary in their importance but also sufficient to the purposes of the class . . . . ." Now, the opening question "If I were to chose one text . . . ." is mostly synchronic, and there is within the deciding for the class the diachronic play of "this semester I will do X, but next semester I will change the list a touch and do Y" which extends the list beyond any one class. But I digress.

In considering the class of texts that are those very few that should be read by everyone with interest in writing or reading literature as literature, this is one of the most insistent. In truth, every time I have returned to it I am myself reconvinced of its value. Not as a text that carries important theoretic arguments or such, but in that it is a text which demands with every re-reading that you question just how you approach literature and the arts, and condemns what is the dominant currents in literature and the art – both in criticism and in writing – even now, five decades later. Perhaps, even more so now, what with the rise of social criticism, which is nothing if not the forcing of interpretation upon texts to the detriment of the experience – the art – of the text itself.

That is, to the detriment of the erotics of the text. But also to the detriment of the psychical and intellectual sophistication of the culture of art and literature in the U.S.


Note: I have a essay about "Against Interpretation" which is in a cue of things to brought to the Cabinet. Perhaps I might move it to the front for processing.