Apr 182004

On most days I believe the world is essentially rational. Not that God’s in his Heaven or whatever is is right, but for the most part well-directed effort is rewarded, virtue triumphs and talent will out. Then there are other days, like when a new Quentin Tarantino movie opens.

“In a world of impossible things that could not happen,” says David Carradine to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “who would have imagined that I would cap your crown?” Yes, he really says “cap your crown.” In a world of impossible things that could not happen, who would have imagined that Quentin Tarantino would acquire a reputation for being able to write dialogue? I blush to admit that I once toyed with the thought myself.

On NPR this morning Terry Teachout counseled critics to devote their best efforts to plot summaries, and I’d like to, I really would. Let’s see…Uma Thurman joins a crack team of freelance assassins, for no reason, who botch every job you see them do. Impregnated by David Carradine, the team’s mastermind, she succumbs to the maternal instinct and quits, moving to El Paso, for no reason, to get married. Carradine hunts her down and has his team kill the entire wedding party, for no reason. Despite having it in for Uma in particular, for no reason, they somehow manage not to snuff her, putting her in a coma for four years instead. Uma awakens, journeys to Japan where she is provided, for no reason, with a magic samurai sword, with which she proceeds to annihilate her former employer and colleagues. KB2, to its credit, does answer the most pressing question posed by the prequel, which is what happened to Daryl Hannah’s right eye.

KB2 fails to distinguish itself even in awfulness. Unspeakable, metaphysical badness, at the level of, say, My Own Private Idaho, requires pretention, to which Tarantino, being innocent of civilization, cannot rise. To be nauseating is the most that he can muster. Sometimes he induces it unintentionally, as in the scene in which Thurman insists that a female assasin sent to kill her first inspect the results of her pregnancy test.

Review the famous Tarantino set-pieces, the ones he didn’t steal: the ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs, the homosexual rape in Pulp Fiction. KB2 adds Uma Thurman plucking out Daryl Hannah’s remaining eye and stepping on it, at which last night’s audience squealed deliriously. What do you remember? Not the characters, all crooks and scumbags. People, in a Tarantino movie, can scarcely be said to exist at all. He cares only for the act; he dwells on it tenderly, in every grisly detail. The violence is always for its own sake.

Tarantino is no nihilist in the sense in which Turgenev’s Bazarov, for instance, is a nihilist. For Tarantino himself, and for his legions of male adolescent fans, his movies are mere pornographic revenge fantasies, wide-screen versions of the journal of a high-school spree killer. Nihilism presupposes a certain familiarity with the beliefs and ideas you’re rejecting. Tarantino’s lint-trap mind fastens entirely on movies and TV, and his nihilism is no nihilism at all. In fact KB2 evinces his belief in motherhood, of all things, like the jailbirds with the “MOM” tattoos.

His intellectual admirers have more to answer for. The 20th was the century of violence, violence as an end in itself. It opened with a ghastly war about nothing in particular, closed with a group of religious fanatics flying planes into office buildings, and remade, in between, the complete Top Ten List of the bloodiest regimes in world history. And 20th century intellectuals worshipped violence, apotheosized it. They served as lickspittles to Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, and Arafat. They made cults of thug writers like Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. And now degenerate intellectuals, newspaper movie critics, praise a thug director like Tarantino in terms that turn out, upon inspection, to be suspiciously elliptical. After all the “deliciously perverse” and “voluptuous,” “uniquely twisted,” “sumptuous” and “operatic,” the question remains: what is it about Tarantino that these people really like?

(Update: Nate Bruinooge agrees with me, pretty much. What’s up with that? Rick Coencas is holding out, but weakening. David Fiore and J.W. Hastings comment. Marc Singer comments.)

Apr 102004

Next time you’re dilating about how stupid George Bush is — and I know this will be very, very soon — and some annoying right-wing interloper points out that Bush has a Harvard MBA, and you can’t be stupid and graduate Harvard Business School, all you have to do is smile and say:

Kwame Jackson has a Harvard MBA.

No charge.

Apr 012004

Immersed, by necessity, in technical matters lately, I began to wonder what my vocation, software, and my avocation, poetry, have in common. (Meanwhile my readers, if any remain, began to wonder if I was ever going to post again.) The literary lawyers go on about the intimacy between poetry and the law and compile an immense anthology devoted to attorney-poets. Who better to speak for the programmers than I? And I do have some company in these two interests: Richard Gabriel, the well-known Stanford computer scientist, is a poet, and among the poet-bloggers Mike Snider and Ron Silliman, two poets as different as you’re likely to find, both write software for a living. Less illustrious, perhaps, than Wallace Stevens and James Russell Lowell and Archibald MacLeish, but computer science is an infant profession while the lawyers have been with us forever.

What the programmer shares with the poet is parsimony, and here we leave law far behind. Programmers, like poets, often labor under near-impossible conditions for practice, and for fun; Donald Knuth, responsible for TeX, the world’s best typesetting program, says that his favorite program is “a compiler I once wrote for a primitive minicomputer that had only 4096 words of memory, 16 bits per word. It makes a person feel like a real virtuoso to achieve something under such severe restrictions.” A popular game in computer science is to try to write the shortest possible program, in a given language, whose source code is identical with its output. Is this any different from writing poems in elaborately complex forms, like sestinas or villanelles, or playing bouts-rimé? In a sense, it’s the constraints that make the poetry.

Successive versions of the same program shrink, even as they improve. In Version 1.0 the developers usually lack, like Pascal in his letters, the time to make it shorter. In 2.0 excess code is pruned, methods and interfaces are merged that at first appeared to have nothing in common, more is done with less. Successive drafts of the same poem shrink the same way, for the same reason. The Waste Land was supposed to have been cut by Ezra Pound from five times its present length. (Pound claimed that he “just cut out all the adjectives.”) Whether it wound up any good is a topic for another day; that it wound up better than it started no one can reasonably doubt.

Good programming requires taste. Certain constructs — long switch or if/else blocks, methods with a dozen arguments or more, gotos, labels, multiple return statements, just about anything that looks ugly on the page — these must make you queasy, your fingers must rebel against typing them. Some programmatic and poetic strategies look eerily alike. The classic way to avoid switch and if/else statements in code is polymorphism, which closely resembles ambiguity in poetry.

Donald Knuth maintains a complete list of errata for all his books, and pays $2.56 ($.028) for every new error you find. In most human endeavor the perfect is the enemy of the good, and many people who have never written a program or a poem might regard Knuth’s quest for perfection as insane. Randall Jarrell once defined a novel as “a long stretch of prose with something wrong with it,” which is amusing but overbroad. A poem is a stretch of verse with something wrong with it; a program is a stretch of code with something wrong with it. A novel is a stretch of prose with something hopelessly wrong with it. For poets and for programmers, perfection seems always a few revisions away. This may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion that the novelist, the civil engineer, certainly the lawyer, cannot share.

In truth, however, yesterday’s code had more in common with poetry than today’s. The great lyric code poems, the brilliantly compressed algorithms, have mostly been written, and live on in the native libraries that all modern programmers use but few read. They are anthologized in Knuth’s three-volume opus, The Art of Programming, one volume each for fundamental algorithms, semi-numerical algorithms, and sorting and searching. Where yesterday’s tiny assembly programs were lyric, today’s n-tier behemoths are epic, and epic programs, like epic poems, never fail to have something hopelessly wrong with them. Nonetheless, in programming we have entered the age of the epic, and there’s no going back. Once, in a bout of insanity, I interviewed for a programming job at a big bank, and encountered a C programmer who liked to work close to the metal. He asked me to write a program that would take a string of characters and reverse it. I asked if I could use Java and he said sure. My program was a one-liner:

string reverse( string pStr ) { return pStr.reverse(); }

The point being that Java has a built-in method to reverse a string, called, remarkably, reverse(). Now I knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted me to use one of the classic algorithms, which have been around since at least the 1960s and are described in Jon Bentley’s excellent book on programming in the small, Programming Pearls, among other places. He wanted a nostalgia tour. But these algorithms are great poems that have already been written. Any decent function library, like Java’s, includes them, and it makes no sense to reinvent them, priding yourself on your cleverness. I didn’t get the job.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. mallarme comments. Ron Silliman points out in the comments that he’s not a software developer after all; I apologize for the error.)

Mar 202004

For once I’m with Teachout; Chaplin gets on my nerves too. For reasons I will defer to the 20th century’s best hater, the old Enemy, Wyndham Lewis:

The childish, puny stature of Chaplin — enabling him always to be the little David to the Goliath of some man chosen for his statuesque proportions — served him well. He was always the little-fellow-put-upon — the naif, child-like individual, bullied by the massive brutes by whom he was surrounded, yet whom he invariably vanquished. The fact that the giants were always vanquished; that, like the heroes of Ossian, they rode forth to battle (against the Chaplins of this world), but that, like those distant celtic heroes, they always fell, never, of course, struck the Public as pathetic, too. For the pathos of the Public is of a sentimental and naively selfish order. It is its own pathos and triumphs that it wishes to hear about. It seldom rises to an understanding of other forms of pathos than that of the kind represented by Chaplin, and the indirect reference to “greatness” in a more general sense, conveyed by mere physical size, repels it.

In this pathos of the small — so magnificently exploited by Charlie Chaplin — the ordinary “revolutionary” motif for crowd-consumption is not far to seek. The Keystone giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed, misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame, were the symbols of authority and power. Chaplin is a great revolutionary propagandist. On the political side, the pity he awakens, and his peculiar appeal to the public, is that reserved for the small man.

But no one can have seen a Chaplin film without being conscious also of something else, quite different from mere smallness. There was something much more positive than scale alone, or absence of scale, being put across, you would feel. First, of course, was the feeling that you were in the presence of an unbounded optimism (for one so small, poor and lonely). The combination of light-heartedness and a sort of scurrilous cunning, that his irresponsible epileptic shuffle gives, is overpowering. It is Pippa that is passing. God’s in His Heaven; all’s well with the world (of Chaplins at all events). And, secondly, you would experience the utmost confidence in your little hero’s winning all his battles. The happy-ending (for the militant child-man) was foreshadowed in the awkward and stupid, lurching bulk of the Keystone giants; in the flea-like adroitness of their terrible little antagonist. It was the little skiff of Drake against the Armada over again. In brief, your hero was not only small, but very capable and very confident. Throughout he bore a charmed life.

To the smallness, and to the charmed life, you now have to add the child-factor… His little doll-like face, his stuck-on toy moustache, his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child as much as is the “four-foot something” body of Miss [Anita] Loos. And without the public being conscious of it, no doubt, it was as a child that he went to its heart, which, as far as the popular audience is concerned, is maternal.

Besides, he isn’t funny.

(Update: Colby Cosh, Rick Coencas, and David Fiore agree with me. George Hunka and Ed Kemmick don’t.)

Mar 122004

All rock critics like Elvis Costello because all rock critics look like Elvis Costello.
–David Lee Roth

Were you a grade-school liberal like me? Anyone who isn’t a socialist at 10 has no heart, anyone who still is at 20 has no brains. I grew up in New York’s legendarily Republican Dutchess County, of which Gore Vidal remarked, after a losing run for assemblyman, “Every four years the natives crawl out of their holes and vote for William McKinley.” Maybe so; what they don’t crawl out of their holes to do is vote for Gore Vidal. Dutchess was FDR’s home county, and he never came close to carrying it in four tries. A straw poll of my 6th grade class revealed that I was the only kid who supported McGovern. What I lacked in numbers I made up in energy, plastering McGovern posters all over the walls of the elementary school. My Nixon hatred confirmed, by junior high I knew all the Watergate players, not just the big boys like Haldeman and Ehrlichman but the whole supporting cast — McCord, Segretti, Egil Krogh, right down to Frank Wills, the security guard at the Watergate Hotel who blew the whole thing open. My chess club adjourned early one sultry night in July 1974 to tune in Nixon’s resignation speech, which I watched with undisguised, not to say lip-smacking, relish.

I understood no more of politics than my Nixonite classmates did. I hated Nixon because my parents hated Nixon and I was too young to have learned to hate my parents; I liked my parents. But I was plenty old enough to hate my classmates, and took a none-too-secret pleasure in the fact that my politics differed from theirs. They were nothing more than a way to be superior.

In high school I refused to listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd: that shit was for the heads who wore cutoff jean jackets and smoked in the parking lot. I went in instead for Devo, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Clash, a few deservedly forgotten groups like the Fabulous Poodles (“Mirror Star” anyone?), and of course, as Professor Lee Roth would have predicted, Elvis Costello. Later on, when my ex-stoner buddies sat me down with the headphones and forced me to listen carefully to Zep and Floyd, I was astonished to discover that it was good, really good, and that my own tastes at the time had held up spottily by comparison. The jean jacket boys were right, and I was wrong. It bothered me, as it would bother anyone. Only after several years of conscientious deprogramming could I listen to these bands without prejudice.

When I started to read poetry I stayed away from Keats and Shelley and Christina Rossetti: that shit was for the girls who liked rainbows and ponies, not that I had anything against rainbows or ponies, just the girls who liked them, who wouldn’t go out with me anyway. Even now I can’t read any Keats besides the Grecian Urn, am notoriously unfair to Shelley, and can admire one or two poems by Rossetti only from a discreet distance.

I have spilled my share of pixels here defending objective values in art. Some art is good, some bad, and confusing them is like thinking that the earth is flat or that there’s a fortune to be made in buying real estate with no money down. I am very far from recanting but I have nagging doubts. Elsewhere, discussing public and private reading, I instanced someone whose favorite song is “Desperado” because it happened to playing when he kissed a girl at the junior high school dance. The example is tendentious; in truth most “private readings” are far more subtle and insidious. You admire someone, and he plays you music, and shows you pictures, and lends you books. You admire the exhibits, but to what extent can that be disentangled from your admiration of the exhibitor, if at all? I have a taste for poems about the relationship between the abstract and the particular; on what grounds can I claim it is any more universal or important a theme than the tribulations of love or the inevitability of the grave?

I exhibit certain poems here, and convince certain readers who might not see them otherwise that they are good. But you will never share my tastes exactly unless you’re exactly like me, and God forbid. Yvor Winters, as any steady reader here knows, is my favorite critic. Do I like him on the merits, such as they are, or do I like him because, of all poetry critics, he’s most like me? David Lee Roth might know. I don’t.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. George Wallace points out that it was Egil Krogh, not Emil as I originally had it; I would have known that in 8th grade. Eddie Thomas has some especially interesting remarks. Eloise of Spit Bull comments. Jeff Ward comments.)

Feb 182004

Didja miss me? You know you did. After a week and change of goofing off, I have a good bit of lost time to make up pissing on other people’s parades. Let’s start with Terry Teachout’s. Terry asks his co-blogger, Our Girl in Chicago, and, one presumes, the rest of us, to ponder the following questions:

(1) What book have you owned longestthe actual copy, I mean?
(2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?
(3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?
(4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?
(5) Whats the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?

Question 1 is very good. Questions 2 through 5 have likely raised Lord Snow from the dead and set him sighing about the Two Cultures all over again, and I’m giving out demerits to, or at least withholding little gold stars from, any blogger who ups and answers these questions without a considerable preamble. (Oooh. Demerits. My little list already includes at least one guy who knows better.) Questions like these are why many serious people believe, though they are usually too polite to say so, that art talk should be confined to cocktail parties and teatime at the ladies’ auxiliary.

Question 1 is good principally because it is unambiguous. If you gather a large sample of answers it will be with some assurance that they are mostly to the same question. This is the rock-bottom requirement for intelligent discussion of any topic, and a shocking amount of ink has been spilled in literary criticism, even at a very high level, because it is so seldom met.

I’ll even answer Question 1 myself before proceeding because that’s the kind of sport I am. It’s Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, which I’ve owned since the age of seven or so and which was my favorite until Dostoevsky came along at 13 to upend my universe. In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo, a bored and as drawn by Feiffer impossibly dour child, receives a gift of a magic tollbooth that transports him to an extremely Platonic kingdom of blooming buzzing words and numbers, where he receives a great many valuable lessons, including one bearing on today’s topic. He encounters four doors, each with a nameplate: “The Dwarf,” “The Giant,” “The Fat Man,” “The Thin Man.” He knocks on each door and the same ordinary-looking man answers each time, with the same explanation: “I’m the world’s tallest dwarf — shortest giant — thinnest fat man — fattest thin man.”

Question 2 is the world’s fattest thin question. Interpreted the obvious way — which famous painting do you like least? — its results will not be interesting. I think this is the most hideous famous painting in the history of the world, and I’ve got my reasons. You think something else and you have yours. We part amicably and unenlightened, having exchanged opinions. Conversation is not an exchange of opinion, it is a sifting of opinion. Unfortunately Jacques Barzun said that, not me.

One possible reinterpretation is: which painting do you think has had the most baleful influence? We still have matters to clear up. If I excise, say, Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon from art history, do I kill only the picture or do I kill its progeny too, all the pictures that could never have been painted without it? Is it possible at once to admire a painting and deplore its influence? It’s certainly possible in literature; consider Ulysses, Madame Bovary, and Paradise Lost, all great masterpieces, all catastrophic influences.

You may wonder why Terry didn’t put the question as I did when he is obviously perfectly capable of doing so. I suspect that he found it too forbidding. To answer you would need to know quite a deal of art history, and then think some on top of that. I wouldn’t consider myself, for instance, with my undergraduate background in art history, up to scratch. But Question 2, in its actual, cuddly phrasing, invites all comers. All you have to do is dislike something to play, and we can all manage that.

Several questions precede Question 3, including, but not limited to: What does it mean to “live” in a film? Do we have to live the backstory too? As which character, since, as the social theorist Mel Brooks has noted, it’s good to be the king? Do we have Wardrobe privileges? Most important, is lunch catered? I’m going to have beg off Question 4, since I’m pretty sure songs never cater lunch.

Terry’s conscience finally pricks him into an explanation at Question 5 — strangely, as it’s the clearest of any of the last four. Asking where “sadness” resides if not in the mind of the viewer is a useful question. Asking which work of art provokes this emotion in you is a clear and unthreatening question. Conjugating these questions can lead only to confusion.

NORML, the pot-legalization people, used to sell a T-shirt that read, “Free America. Drug-free America. Choose one.” Serious cultureblogging. Inclusive cultureblogging. Choose one. Not quite as catchy, but then I’m not in the T-shirt business.

(Update: Y’know, you try to slap a little sense into these kids these days and this is the thanks you get. I would not, however, dream of cracking wise about Terry’s knowledge of art history, which vastly exceeds my own. I meant to exclude myself from offering an intelligent answer to the question of which single painting exerted the worst influence. In fact Terry’s answer would be worth hearing in at least four arts, while I would be uninteresting outside of literature. Not everybody gets to play in every reindeer game, which was my point.)

Feb 012004

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), author of this somber performance, was a minister to Elizabeth and James I and friend to and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney. His elegy on Sidney’s death is well worth reading. (This text is inferior but it’s the only link I can find. The poem ends “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind” — “keep the bones” jingles.) Greville died one of the richest men in England, stabbed by a servant who believed, mistakenly, that he was to be cheated of a bequest. He was also one of the greatest poets of one of the greatest eras in English poetry.

I have expostulated on tenor and vehicle in poetry, but this sonnet makes me doubt that the distinction is as simple as I made it out. It operates at three levels at least. At the literal level, night is simply night and the eye the eye. By “witty tyranny” Greville means tyranny of the wit, or the imagination. Anyone who has been startled by a shadow on a deserted street at night will understand “forge and raise impossibility.” The precision of those two verbs characterizes all of Greville’s verse.

The first quatrain contains a miniature treatise on epistemology. True perception, for Greville, requires both an external reality to perceive and an observer to do the perceiving. At night “distinction” (external reality) only appears to be lost; it has “gone down with the light” but remains, though hidden. Similarly the eye’s powers are unabated, but with “distinction” hidden they are useless, in fact worse than useless, for the perceiver turns them inward, projecting his own doubts, fears, and errors on a world he can no longer see.

Greville here begins to write at a second level, somewhere between tenor and vehicle. He has in mind much more than mere sight. Everyone, especially writers, who spend so much time cloistered with their own thoughts, knows how easy it is to promote a fancy to a theory, a preference to a dictum. (Of course I’m talking about the rest of you. I never do that.) Greville speaks of “proper reflections of the error” and in another poem of “the error’s ugly infinite impression,” the way it mirrors or ripples outward indefinitely. In his introduction to Greville’s poems, Thom Gunn remarks acutely that “the vowel-alliteration [of ‘ugly infinite impression’] makes it easy to say quickly; the error’s ‘impression’ spreads, similarly, with the ease and speed of a stain on water.”

Finally, as we ascend to the tenor, the poem is theological. The “evils” and “devils” of the closing couplet belong to Christian vocabulary, along with, less obviously, “depriving” and “error.” Gunn identifies night, at this level, with Hell. More precisely, it is man’s state deprived of divine Grace — “thick depriving darknesses.” Here reality is God. Life on earth is vanity, “self-confusednesses,” “self-offense,” and error, from which there is no escape but Grace. Whether the reader objects to the sentiment is beside the point. Greville knows perfectly well that the human mind can “distinguish” on its own, in some circumstances, and says so, in the same poem, and in the same words. The poem shows a great mind wrestling with an impossible intellectual situation.

To a modern sensibility Greville has no obvious appeal. The verse movement in Campion and Morley is sprightly: in Greville it is stately, even ponderous. Ralegh despairs cynically: Greville hopes, but realistically. Donne imposes and dramatizes his personality: Greville submerges his. Spenser rhapsodizes: Greville analyzes. Sidney was a dashing soldier who died young on the battlefield: Greville rendered greater service to the state by surviving to old age. His poetry was obscure in his own time, and its qualities guarantee its continued obscurity. He is only the subtlest, most precise intellect of all the Elizabethan poets. Intellect was not popular then, and it is less popular now.

(Update: Here is a portrait of Greville in which he looks very like what he was.)

Jan 182004

Is it possible to review books and movies without resorting to the following?

  • It’s a true story. I’ll spare you Oscar Wilde on life imitating art, because I suspect a large percentage of Oscar’s epigrams came from scouring the papers for journalese that he could stand on its head. Invert a cliché, produce a witticism. It’s a neat trick and I’ve used it myself, but it’s on the lazy side.

    Sorry. I was talking about true stories. We have two words in English, realism and reality, for the excellent reason that they don’t mean the same thing. The lamest possible defense for an inconceivable plot is that it actually happened. Inconceivable events happen all the time. Fiction wants plausibility, not reality: for reality I can ride the subway. Of course, the less plausible the “real-life” event, the likelier it is to be turned into a book or a movie. (On a side note, have you ever noticed that the more sordid the work, the higher the praise for its, usually, “gritty” realism?)

  • I laughed I cried. The Neanderthal version; “I was moved” is a slightly more evolved form. I cry at the movies. I cry at good movies, like Babette’s Feast and Brief Encounter; at good-bad movies, like Love Story and It’s a Wonderful Life; and at irredeemably bad movies, like Brian’s Song and Backdraft (don’t ask). This fact should interest no one and doesn’t much interest me. The point is, it’s easy to make the audience cry. Acquaint them with a sympathetic character and kill him, preferably her, off, preferably young, preferably with a lingering but picturesque disease. (Unfortunately tuberculosis is almost extinct. Consumption would have been the perfect choice: we make shift now with leukemia and sundry non-disfiguring cancers.) Cue swelling music, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto or Pachelbel’s Canon or something of that sort. Pass out handkerchiefs.

    Laughing is more reliable. But only a little. The Women is a funny movie, but the one line in it that always makes me laugh is a throwaway: a woman passes through a room with her daughter, saying, “And don’t think I didn’t hear that Princeton boy call me an old grizzlepuss!” Now I happen to find archaic insults funny. I would hesitate, however, to recommend the movie on that basis.

  • Surprise! Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn’t worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze, OK? If you’re watching a movie or reading a book to find out what’s going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney’s annulment.
  • Nuanced, edgy, hommage, longueur, intimate (adjective and verb, also intimation), harrowing, dazzling (my eyes!), lyrical.

Thank you for your cooperation.

(Update: Terry Teachout comments, about suspense, and he has a point. Suspense is a joy of its own, and I could certainly be read as suggesting otherwise. I want to know how it ends as much as the next cultureblogger. But you shouldn’t be in it strictly for the ending, or even mostly, even the first time.)

(More: Rick Coencas also stands up for suspense, sort of.)

Jan 162004

Michael Blowhard hypothesizes two concert attendees, one of a Black Sabbath show (Oz-era, one hopes), the other of Pollini playing Chopin. They both report that the show was “great,” and Michael has a few questions, which I will number for convenience:

1. Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a “greater” experience than the other?
2. What is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has? Does any such relationship exist, necessarily, at all?
3. Is it possible, or even semi-possible, to assert that greater works deliver greater experiences?
4. By what measure and on whose authority?
5. And to what extent does the answer depend on who’s doing the experiencing?

Let’s get one thing straight first: the aesthetic experience, like all experiences, exists entirely in the mind of the audience. Of course the stimulus, the work, is real, but no aesthetic experience is possible without an audience. Art is art by virtue of communicating something to someone else. The viewer recreates the work for himself, which can be done well or badly, and it is only the recreation that counts. The viewer is his own artist, not in the deconstructionist sense of all interpretations being equally valid, but in the sense that only he is responsible for bringing the art back to life. As J.V. Cunningham puts it:

Poets survive in fame.
But how can substance trade
The body for a name
Wherewith no soul’s arrayed?

No form inspires the clay
Now breathless of what was,
Save the imputed sway
Of some Pythagoras,

Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.

To experience a work of art well is to see what is there and nothing that is not. Let’s simplify Michael’s hypo a bit, controlling for the variables. Imagine the same person reading the same book twice, say five years apart. Everyone has reread a book and said to himself, “My God, how did I miss that the first time?” This happened to me with Portrait of a Lady the third time I read it, a couple years ago. Finally I’d had enough adult experience, and paid close enough attention, to understand, among other things, the solipsism that makes Gilbert Osmond such a monster, his insistence that everything in his universe reflect his pinched self. I can judge the aesthetic value of my three readings because I have direct introspective access to all of them. The third reading was deeper, broader, more complete — greater, in a word.

The answer to Question 1, however, is no. In the trivial case the Chopin fan may be a chronic liar who slept through the concert and praises it to impress his friends. More seriously, there is something to be got out of Black Sabbath, though less, perhaps, than what can be got out of Chopin. Quite possibly the Sabbath fan has concentrated so much better than the Chopin fan that he has had a superior aesthetic experience, though from an inferior work of art.

Which brings us to Question 2. Greater art offers the potential, but only the potential, for a greater experience. The viewer must realize that potential, and the work lies fallow unless he’s up to the task. Intensity, I should emphasize, is not the standard, but propriety. People are often deeply moved by bad art because it happens to accord with their prejudices. This is like being deeply moved by the sound of your own voice. We have all reread books that mattered to us as adolescents, only to be horrified at how bad they really are. The first reading sours in retrospect, and it should. The experience was meretricious: you were taken in.

To Question 3, which is the guts of the matter, we’d better be able to answer yes, otherwise critics, English teachers, and culturebloggers may as well hang up their collective spurs right now. Fortunately we can. There are things to notice in works of art. It is better to notice them than not to. Great works of art simply have more to notice. Nobody’s in charge, of course, and there is no quantitative standard (Question 4). We argue about what is there and what is not, and the best argument, if we’re lucky, carries the day.

If the answer to Question 5 isn’t obvious by now, imagine that the Sabbath fan, who hates classical music, was forced to attend the Chopin recital and the Chopin fan, who hates metal, was forced to go to the Sabbath show. Wouldn’t both of their experiences suffer in consequence? Sure they would.

Aren’t you sorry you asked?

(Update: James Joyner comments. Will Duquette comments. John Venlet comments. George Hunka comments at length. Lynn Sislo comments, and meta-comments. )

Jan 142004

Several bloggers are reading my homeboy, the late American poet and critic Yvor Winters, which pleases me greatly, and misreading him, which comes with the territory.

I first encountered Winters’ name in the back pages of The New Republic, where the reviewer, discussing someone else, referred to him slightingly as “opposed to everything the 20th century stood for.” Ah ha, thought I, there’s the critic for me. I dug up a copy of Forms of Discovery — which is not the best place to start, the novice should try In Defense of Reason instead — and soon hoovered up everything he wrote.

Eliot is still generally regarded as the most influential critic of the century; history will judge that it was Winters. He taught poetry and American literature at Stanford for forty years; among his students were dozens of distinguished poets and scholars, including J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, and Scott Momaday, who will eventually be numbered, along with Winters himself, among the finest poets of the 20th century. (That’s two appeals to posterity in two sentences if you’re scoring at home.) Winters personally introduced several poems to the canon, including George Herbert’s Church Monuments, Robert Bridges’ The Affliction of Richard, and F.G. Tuckerman’s The Cricket (with help from Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson). His reevaluation of Elizabethan poetry, upgrading Wyatt, Jonson, Greville and Gascoigne, and downgrading Spenser and Sidney, is now a well-regarded if not yet the standard view; in the early 1960s an English department hack published an anthology of Elizabethan poetry that plagiarized Winters’ choices, extremely eccentric at the time, almost exactly, without so much as mentioning his name. Other causes of his, like Jones Very, Charles Churchill, and Sturge Moore, have met with less success: then again nobody reads Lancelot Andrewes on Eliot’s account either.

Winters campaigns, in a phrase, against emotion for its own sake. He insists that indulgence in emotion without adequate motive leads to sloppy writing, sloppy thinking, and sloppy living. This leaves him hostile in philosophy to the Transcendentalists and to their 18th century continental predecessors like Shaftesbury, who find wisdom in impulse. And it leaves him hostile in poetry to the British romantics especially, who constantly fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, without troubling to tell the reader anything about the thorns or even why they are thorny at all.

One suspects most anti-romantic critics, like Irving Babbitt or Paul Elmer More, of being insensible to the considerable lure of romanticism, of priggishly denouncing vices by which they were never tempted. Winters, on the other hand, was very nearly seduced. His early poems, like those of William Carlos Williams (think of the fire engine and the red wheelbarrow) and like American Indian verse, which influenced him greatly, derive their power from an intense focus on tiny particulars that borders on the maniacal. His first book of poems was called “Diadems and Faggots,” after a line from an Emerson poem that David Fiore, ironically, quotes against him. He finally concluded that he had to think better, and use better methods, to write better poetry, and retain his sanity. He deliberately sacrificed intensity for balance, lest he end up, as he put it, “a minor disciple of W.C. Williams.” This felt experience gives his criticism a uniquely charged earnestness. Winters takes Emerson far more seriously than Emerson ever took himself.

Winters is most notorious for his oft-repeated pronouncement that a poem is “a moral judgment of a human experience.” His contemporaries, Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom for instance, commonly translated this as a demand for a sort of propositional poetry, and the misapprehension persists in Lawrence White:

I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher’s teacher, & I thought it’d help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the “poetry is the highest thought” thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? … Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he’d have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he’s submitted so far.

This reminds me of my father’s remark, when I showed him J.V. Cunningham’s poem on the Central Limit Theorem, that he preferred the Central Limit Theorem. Winters does not ask for the Critique of Pure Reason in verse, and the phrase “poetry is the highest thought” appears nowhere in his work to my knowledge. He interests himself in the relationship between the paraphrasable content and the emotion the poem provokes. In the precise adjustment of this relationship, through various technical means of which rhyme and meter are only the crudest, lies the judgment. He praises such poems as Rimbaud’s Larme, which has no paraphrase to speak of, Allen Tate’s The Subway, in which the paraphrase is mad (much like Winters’ own Danse Macabre), and Elizabeth Daryush’s Still-Life, in which the moral judgment differs entirely from the paraphrase.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Yeats, with whom this tempest began. Yeats is not just foolish, he is resoundingly foolish. He affects a vatic tone, insisting that the reader treat his risible ideas seriously. The resounding is far more irksome than the foolishness. A poet’s got to know his limitations, and Yeats was never too clear on his. Winters understood his very well:

What was all the talk about?
This was something to decide.
It was not that I had died.
Though my plans were new, no doubt,
There was nothing to deride.

I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.

Orchard tree beside the road,
Bare to core, but living still!
Moving little was my skill.
I could hear the farting toad
Shifting to observe the kill,

Spotted sparrow, spawn of dung,
Mumbling on a horse’s turd,
Bullfinch, wren, or mockingbird
Screaming with a pointed tongue
Objurgation without word.