Thursday, November 3, 2016

Something I Read #18 – Mircea Eliade

Actually, I should say "something I've re-read," and not for only the second time.

From the close of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (trans. Willard R Trask, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1987, 1959).

Yet the contents and structures of the unconscious are the result of immemorial existential situations, especially of critical situation, and this is why the unconscious has a religious aura. For every existential crisis once again puts in question both the reality of the world and man's presence in the world. This means that the existential crisis is, finally, "religious," since on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one. As we saw, it is the experience of the sacred that founds the world, and even the most elementary religion is, above all, an ontology. In other words, in so far as the unconscious is the result of countless existential experiences, it cannot but resemble the various religious universes. For religion is the paradigmatic solution for every existential crisis. It is the paradigmatic solution not only because it can be indefinitely repeated, but also because it is believed to have a transcendental origin and hence is valorized as a revelation received from an other, transhuman world. The religious solution not only resolves the crisis but at the same time makes existence "open" to values that are no longer contingent or particular, thus enabling man to transcend personal situations and, finally, gain access to the world of spirit.

This is not the place to develop all the consequences of this close relation between the content and structures of the unconscious on the one hand and the values of religion on the other. We were led to refer to it in order to show in what sense even the most avowedly nonreligious man still, in his deeper being, shares in a religiously oriented behavior. But modern man's "private mythologies" – his dreams, reveries, fantasies, and so on – never rise to the ontological status of myths, precisely because they are not experienced by the _whole man_ and therefore do not transform a particular situation into a situation that is paradigmatic. In the same way, modern man's anxieties, his experiences in dream or imagination, although "religious" from the point of view of form, do not, as in homo religiosus, mark part of a Weltanshauung and provide the basis for a system of behavior. An example will show the differences between these two categories of experiences. The unconscious activity of modern man ceaselessly presents him with innumerable symbols, and each of them has a particular message to transmit, a particular mission to accomplish, in order to ensure or to re-establish the equilibrium of the psyche. As we have seen the symbol not only makes the world "open" but also helps religious man to attain to the universal. For it is through symbols that man finds his way out of his particular situation and "opens himself" to the general and the universal. Symbols awaken individual experience and transmute it into a spiritual act, into metaphysical comprehension of the world. In the presence of any tree, symbol of the world tree and image of cosmic life, a man of the premodern societies can attain to the highest spirituality, for, by understanding the symbol, ­he succeeds in living the universal. It is the religious vision of the world, and the concomitant ideology, that enable him to make this individual experience bear fruit, to "open" it to the universal. The image of the tree still quite frequently appears in the imaginary universes of modern nonreligious man; it is a cipher of his deeper life, of the drama that is played out in his unconscious and that concerns the integrity of his psychomental life and hence his own existence. But as long as the symbol of the tree does not awaken his total consciousness and "open" it to the universe, it cannot be said to have completely fulfilled its function. It has only partly "saved" him from his individual situation – for example, by enabling him to resolve a deep crisis and restoring his temporarily threatened psychic equilibrium; but it has not yet raised him to spirituality – that is, it has not succeeded in revealing one of the structures of the real to him. (210-12)

"[S]ince on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one" . . . a phrase that might be my theory of the aesthetic in a nutshell. Of course, having been crammed into a nutshell, it necessitates a hell of a lot of unpacking.

The book never itself speaks to the idea of the aesthetic. Nevertheless, it is a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in literature and the arts as an aesthetic – as opposed to merely cultural – endeavor.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Something I Read #17 - D. S. Savage

The subject is aestheticism, the attitude toward art and literature at the end of the nineteenth century marked by "art for art's sake"; but, in showing how aestheticism differed from Symbolism, it is also one of the best presentations of Symbolism I have come by.

It is false to read this as qualifying Yeats's work. It is instead setting the groundwork to understanding Yeats's work.

From D.S. Savage's "The Aestheticism of W.B. Yeats," as presented in The Permanence of Yeats (ed. James Hall and Martin Steinmann, Macmillan, NY: 1950), a collection that should be on every Yeats scholar's shelf.

The symbolists attempted to purge poetry of all that was foreign to it, to concentrate upon essentials, and this meant the exclusion from art of those elements which in life had receded into the realm of the general, the commonplace. Thus the symbolists tended to repudiate outer actuality, which they identified with bourgeois civilization, and, retiring into themselves, to concentrate upon their own experience, which became more and more private and personal. The symbolists, if by that word we mean principally the poets Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, were not led by their ideas to a repudiation of life, i.e., of experience. But in their search for an ideal Beauty lying behind the world of appearances their grip on actual life was weakened, and this made it easier for successors to turn away from actuality altogether and to preoccupy themselves with dreams. All art is rooted in experience. The flaw in symbolism, which helped to make possible its utilization by the exponents of aestheticism, was its imperfect realization of this truth and its too intense endeavour to break outside the limits of life, its over-specialization and the reactionary tendency which made it concentrate too exclusively upon the exotic, the bizarre. Symbolism and aestheticism must not, however, be confused. The first is a doctrine of art, springing from artistic practice; the second derives from theory and tends to become and attitude to life -- a very different thing. Yet it is not hard to see how this doctrine of art lent itself to the less austere and integral gospel of aestheticism which, as a way of apprehending life rather than a way of writing poetry, involved a turning away from actuality and a concentration upon certain elements in life which were considered to be superior to the rest.

As is well enough known, Yeats began his career in a literary environment heavily saturated with the aestheticism of Pater, of Wilde, and of the lesser figures of the eighteen-nineties, the dominant influences upon his mind being those of Pater and Villiers de L'Isle Adam, Axel being one of his "sacred books." Of the three main threads which ran together through his life and thought, each deriving from a common source: that is, aestheticism, natinoalism, and occultism, it is the first which may most profitably be taken as the key to his development. Yeats absorbed certain of the doctrines of Symbolism (as preached by Mallarmé) through the medium of Arthur Symons, who called him "the chief representative of that movement in our country." Nevertheless, Symbolism meant something quite different to the English followers than to their French masters. Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé were not aesthetes; they were poets, seekers after reality, visionaries, and the practice of their art was rooted in, although it was an attempt to transcend, experience. It had a religious quality about it, and was in a sense the culmination of a mystical way of life, of apprehension. The aesthetes, however, who took over and adapted for their own uses the doctrines of Symbolism, lacked this intense seriousness. They were dilettantes, and interested less in the ardours of artistic creation than in the use to which artistic precepts could be put in the alleviation of living. The elements in life which aestheticism took to be superior to the others were its poetic elements, and therefore when they took to creative work their art was a reflection of a reflection. Dream and decoration were characteristics of their work because dream and decoration were what they sought for in life. Where the practice of poetry for Mallarmé implied a mystical vision of life, for Yeats it meant a turning away from life and the making of poetry out of moods and dreams, while his 'mysticism,' so far from being inherent in his artistic practice, was imported from outside in the form of the alien paraphernalia of theosophy, magic, and the rest.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Delillo's Underworld -- a Review/Response

A note after the fat: After writing this I immediately read The Body Artist straight through. As regards Underworld itself my thoughts are mostly unchanged. However, my estimation of Delillo is greatly raised. More detail offered in a footnote on The Body Artist, below.


Delillo has been subject of or made appearances in a handful of discussions recently, enough so to prompt me to return to Underworld after having put it down unfinished a few years ago. I read then the opening foray, the (apparently) well known prologue on the pennant clinching, 1951 Dodgers-Giants game, which I enjoyed greatly but which left me with questions as to whether I wanted to continue, questions which were answered to the negative by the pages that followed.

I tend to be a slow reader, I tend to read books that demand (and merit) being read slowly, and as such I don't like wasting my time on books that I don't find profitable or highly enjoyable, and don't generally read books just for the sake of having read them.

Yes, as regards its technical character, that opening chapter is worth the reading. It is a well crafted narrative. But so also is the opening salvo of Saving Private Ryan technically a marvel, and worth the viewing and reviewing for grasping what it does so well. However, the rest of Saving Private Ryan is a shallow narrative woven mostly of conventions, contrivances, and cheap manipulations. But that one word there applies also to the opening: shallow. While it may be a bravura technical performance, the extended sequence is wholly and only narrative; there is no ideational depth to it, no ideational development. It is visual prose, if very well crafted prose, at its most prosaic.

Which is the same take-a-way that I had with the opening of Underworld: technically interesting, but for the most part a shallow – and occasionally conventional or contrived – narrative; and, it seemed that it was during its attempts to move beyond empty, prosaic narrative into intelligent prose that it most turned to contrivance (as with the closing sequences concerning the struggle for and possession of the baseball).

As such, even as the praise of being a "technical marvel" becomes qualified. For example, consider the side story of the foursome in the audience of Gleason, Sinatra, Shor, and Hoover. Do they add ideational depth and energies to the text, or are they merely a part of the brute narrative. If the latter, even if they exist to serve the technical function of giving a different point of view to the game, something off which the narrative line of the announcer can bounce, the demands on technical ability will be less than if the foursome because of an outward generating, ideational core, wherein the writer had to deal not only with the surface narrative but also unifying the whole into an ideational field that was not centered upon the narrative. For example, in The Thin Red Line, the cinematic polar opposite to Saving Private Ryan, the major characters are all in dialogue with each other by way of their own being in the film, all addressing the nature of conflict and war as though beings on an Olympus, all simultaneously part of a unity but individual within that unity. In Underworld, I never sensed such unity: it stayed, like the prologue to Saving Private Ryan, in surface narrative, in realist depiction, never generating a field of ideational resonance. Thus why at the end I had little true inertia carrying me forward into the rest of the book, however exciting the narrative of the game, and why after reading a little farther into the book I lost all desire to continue.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Visual Labyrinths in Body Double

This is something newly posted to the Cabinet (here).


It is the epitome of obviousness to say Body Double is Brian de Palma's full out homage to Alfred Hitchcock (a relationship resumed, though less emphatically, in his 1992 Raising Cain). The film follows heavily in theme and visualization both Rear Window, in the voyeurism, and Vertigo, which is transformed into claustrophobia. Though is it solely homage? To me de Palma is delving far too deeply into the stylistic aspects of Hitchcock for it to be merely homage: it is all out exploration and play; stealing, in the manner of the phrase, to the ends of his own creation, but stealing in plain sight, and playfully calling attention to the theft to boot.

What I would like to look at here, however, is a third theme that lies (mostly) outside the Hitchcock connection and speaks to how Body Double is an very successful film of its own identity and unity: the theme of the labyrinth. It is a theme in Body Double presented almost entirely visually, which is what makes it so fascinating to me, and, I would argue, what makes it so successful. Granted, the visuals work in the film also at the simpler, technical levels of creating mood, pace, tension, etc. However, the work also, and to greater effect, on their own within a complex of ideational play. In what follows, keep that relationship in mind. My interest here is not in how the visual aspect of the labyrinthian work subserviently to some base structure; rather, my interest is how the visuals on their own, without the support of exposition or dialogue in any way, generate their own ideational depth to the film. I will here mostly only present the visual elements and offer a reading of some of the ideational energies created. I will not go too deeply into any theoretical discussion; and will leave exploration beyond presentation mostly to you.


Before continuing, let me posit a fourth idea, one mostly structural in nature, which I bring in primarily in an organizational function. I want to recognize that Body Double follows the classic, Shakespearean, there-and-back-again, five step structure. This is in itself not that terribly important an idea as regards the design of the film: the five step organization is something readily found in narratives, and something really created by accident; its presence within a text does not mean that the text was intentionally built upon that framework, as here, where there is no insistence within the film itself that we as the audience should see five steps.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Something I Read #16 -- David Perkins

This comes from David Perkins's A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (1976; pgs 128-130; it is the first of a two volume history), closing off his discussion of Edward Arlington Robinson. The ideas he raises are both historical and theoretical in nature.

These long narratives go on mostly for between eighty and a hundred pages and make up abut two-thirds of Robinson's total output. They appear to have been admired mainly on principle and to have been more praised than read. Neither can one challenge this consensus of inattention. It is impossible to read them with more than languid interest. To ask why this is so, however, is to raise fundamental. questions about the limitations and the evolution of poetry in the modern world. Robinson, to be sure, was not a storyteller of Chaucerian genius. But since the Romantic period no poet has scored a major success in narrative poems of this length, though a good many have tried. One thinks of Browning's The Ring and the Book, Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum, the tales of Morris, and Yeats's Wanderings of Oisin. The short short story of a few hundred lines, such as Frost's "The Witch of Coos," or a series of linked lyrics making up a story, such as Meredith's Modern Love, seem to exhaust the possibilities open to poetry on this line. Why? Answers can only be speculative, and while we are speculating, we should keep in mind that the question of the long narrative poem overlaps the question of the long poem generally. Here again there have been few successes that cannot be reduced to the general form of a long poem made up out of linked short ones: for example, In Memoriam, The House of Life, The Waste Land, Four Quartets, The Bridge, Paterson. The few exceptions that spring to mind – the longer epistles of Auden or Ginsberg's Kaddish – are especially revealing: they succeed precisely because they avoid the more condensed uses of language that have been the norm of poetry for the last fifty years.