Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.

 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.


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Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and EffronteryArt Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this collection of essays concurrently with Winterson’s novel, Art and Lies, and I suspect they were written concurrently, as there is much overlap in both books’ arguments about art and society—and the didacticism of Winterson’s fiction and the lyricism of her non-fiction only increases the similarity. Since I discussed Winterson’s political and social thought at length in my review of Art and Lies—in brief, she is a Romantic anti-capitalist, a radical-reactionary aesthete—I will confine myself here to more strictly literary matters.

This book is in three parts. The first consists of the title essay, in which Winterson transforms the word “objects” from noun to verb, insisting on the actively transformative power of art, a power that requires an equally active response on the part of the viewer/reader. (Which Winterson argues, again, is difficult to achieve in techno-modernity with its materialism and all-encroaching and far too easy pop culture.) She mainly discusses visual art in this piece; it is anchored by her experience of being arrested “by a painting that had more power to stop [her] than [she] had power to walk away,” which forces her to learn more about the visual arts (she rather defensively chooses Bloomsberrie Roger Fry as her guide) and to discover her own capacity to sit silently in front of a work of art for the length of time it requires to unfold itself to her. Eventually Winterson reveals that the painting that so affected her was one of Massimo Rao’s. This is a bit surprising, given Winterson’s otherwise orthodox modernism, as Rao is a figurative if slightly surreal painter (I believe, though there does not seem to be much information about him out there), akin to the kitsch school of Odd Nerdrum. From what I can tell, I like his work well enough, it just seems like an strange choice for Winterson. (You can see some of his paintings here.)

The next section contains Winterson’s essays on Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. She defends The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a revision of autobiographical form toward abstraction and mocks Matisse, who complained of Stein’s inaccuracies, for expecting Stein to write mimetically when he did not concern himself to paint mimetically. On Woolf, she writes appreciations of both Orlando and The Waves, i.e., Woolf’s most and least entertaining novels. The rollicking and endlessly inventive Orlando—perhaps the most sheerly fun novel in the modernist canon—needs no defense, but Winterson almost makes me want to revisit The Waves, a fiction I found far too rarefied, too willed an experiment, to be edifying or transformative. Winterson throughout the book lauds T. S. Eliot, author of her favorite twentieth-century poem, Four Quartets. Faithful to Woolf, she wrongheadedly disparages Joyce as too hermetic (but Joyce is not merely playing word games for the fun of it, he is rather enacting psychological and historical processes in language).

She quotes Woolf’s “Four Women Novelists” at length to explain the folly of writing out of personal or political partisanship; I will quote it too since it runs so counter to the dominant literary ideology of our time, which counsels the writer to nurse every private resentment and political fury, and with which Woolf is often seen erroneously as being in accord:

In Middlemarch and in Jane Eyre we are conscious not merely of the writer’s character, as we are conscious of the character of Charles Dickens, but we are conscious of a woman’s presence—of someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights. This brings into women’s writing an element which is entirely absent from a man’s, unless, indeed, he happens to be a working man, a negro, or one who for some other reason is conscious of disability. It introduces a distortion and is frequently the cause of weakness. The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly twofold instead of single. The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations…

Winterson elaborates on this to slight the soapbox-preacher working-man D. H. Lawrence, whom she later cites approvingly in his judgement that central heating is immoral.

Hostile to the nineteenth century and its “toilsome” and somber insistence on mimesis, she faults Dickens and Tennyson for writing too much, for walking when they should have flown. She prefers the eighteenth century, with its bawdy playfulness and artifice, and the Renaissance, with its experiments in form and metaphor. She insultingly criticizes Conrad for being a Pole who tried to out-English the English: “the disciplined pedant, the Salieri of letters, wanted and wrote a fixed English” and so failed to write a living prose; I actually take her point about Conrad, but surely the problem, if it is a problem, is not his national origin but his discipleship to Flaubert, who immobilized fictional prose in the name of le mot juste—to which Woolf somewhere quite correctly replied that the right rhythm is more important than the right word.

Her view of twentieth-century literary history, which is probably not wrong at least as far as England goes:

For myself, in the literature of my own language, I can find little to cheer me between the publication of Four Quartets (1944) and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (1967). Of course I am cheered by Beckett and by Pinter and Orton and Stoppard, but they are dramatists and, with the exception of Beckett, the solid body of their work comes out of the 1960s, as does that of Adrienne Rich.

Objections come to mind, largely American: Nabokov? Ellison? O’Connor? Welty? None of them dull realists, all of them poets in the broad sense. That the only American she mentions is Adrienne Rich puzzles me greatly, as I judge Rich to be a turgid, dreary, and self-congratulatory ideologue—but then I did not read far beyond the anthology pieces, so maybe it’s my own fault.

In the final section, Winterson discusses the relation between art and life. She insists that fiction is artifice and not autobiography; she blames both prurient straight and activist queer critics for a stultifying identity politics that have readers associating her own work with Radclyffe Hall rather than with T. S. Eliot just because she is a lesbian. She understands the paradoxes of art and ideology well:

Communist and People’s Man, Stephen Spender, had the right credentials, but Catholic and cultural reactionary T. S. Eliot made the poetry.

There is a beautiful essay on book collecting called “The Psychometry of Books,” which defends the physical object, the codex bound in space and time, as a bearer of aesthetic presence. An essay on “Imagination and Reality” associates the artist with the priest and the king, with royal presence and the quest for the divine. She waxes nostalgic over the system of church and court patronage, which she sees as kinder to the artist than the market, which subjects the creator to clock-time rather than the eternity of creation.

The words to mock Winterson for these views come so readily to mind that it is possible to forget that the mockers would have been thought stupid, coarse, or crazy for most of history. In rejecting any special pleading on behalf of her own social position, Winterson makes it easy enough for the reader to object in her stead that those who deride her unfashionable Romanticism are simply unable to take seriously the spiritual and cultural aspirations of a working-class lesbian from Lancashire. For my part, I will take Winterson’s untimely modernism and timeless Romanticism and her sense of the writer’s divine vocation over contemporary academe’s view of the arts—all those fervorless snide minions of Bourdieu and Foucault for whom art is nothing but a game of social status.

Winterson’s final essay discusses, at perhaps excessive length, her own work, her struggle to write fiction after the superannuation of the realist novel, her attempt to reanimate the modernist legacy and its own links to tradition. I like the part where she defines the writer as one who “lives in a constant state of readiness,” one who reads and thinks every day but who does not need to write every day (I myself have always thought “write every day” was bad advice, as if a work of art were a job you went to and punched a clock).

Complaints? Winterson has a great command of English literary history, but seemingly little outside that. Where are the Continental or Russian or American writers, to say nothing of points further east or south? She is able to make short work of realism by deriding Trollope, but wouldn’t Stendhal or Tolstoy give her a much harder time of it? Also, this book tends to repeat itself, and to repeat the didactic passages in her fiction. There is a performative contradiction here: in making such strenuous and serious arguments for a lightsome poetry, Winterson too walks when she should fly and betrays a certain Victorian (stern, earnest, sober) sensibility of her own. Well, there is no fascinating writer without contradictions, and I found this a fascinating book.

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T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the CathedralMurder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I should not like to close without attempting to set before you, though only in dim outline, the ideal towards which poetic drama should strive. It is an unattainable ideal: and that is why it interests me, for it provides an incentive towards further experiment and exploration, beyond any goal which there is prospect of attaining. It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musician in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the namable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed towards action—the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express—there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists—such as Ibsen and Chekhov—who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, in spite of their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express.
—T. S. Eliot, “Poetry and Drama”

Eliot’s biographer Peter Ackroyd observes that this “dramatization of the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury” (to quote this edition’s helpful front cover) was a popular success when first staged in 1935. No doubt the dramatic action’s historical remoteness and the play’s Christian didacticism account for its relative lack of popularity today, but admirers of “Prufrock” and The Waste Land should know what I just found out: that this play contains some of Eliot’s most intense and memorable poetry, much of it in the same vein (“a jugular vein,” as they used to say at Mad magazine) as those earlier, more openly skeptical if spiritually searching poems Eliot wrote before his 1927 conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.

The action of the play is simple: Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, returns after seven years of exile in France, whereto he was forced because of his ongoing quarrel with King Henry II about whether or not the church in England should be under the dominance of Rome or should become more independent, in line with the needs of the state. (This is my sketchy understanding of the situation; Eliot leaves all of these political and historical details in the far background, and the contemporary reader who does not know the details will have to look them up.) Becket is greeted by priests and by a chorus of local women, who both lament the suffering they have endured without their spiritual shepherd and announce their premonition of doom. Becket then confronts a series of tempters—they offer worldly pleasure, power in the form of reconciliation with the king, power in the form of rebellion against the king in league with the aristocracy, and, finally and most subtly, the morbid and self-righteous pleasure of a willed martyrdom. Becket dismisses all of these, and the first part ends. In an interlude, he preaches a Christmas sermon in which he expounds Christianity’s unique requirement that its believers “rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason,” a matter of literary interest as well as religious, given Eliot’s attempt to write a modern Christian tragedy. In the second part, Becket’s doom arrives in the form of four knights, working (or are they?) at the behest of the king, who perform the titular murder, and then, rather comically, they defend themselves to the audience in lawyerly or political prose. The play concludes with the chorus’s prayers; now that their worst fears have been realized, they can give thanks to God for the gift of a saint at Canterbury.

In outline, the Christian didacticism stands out; but in reading the play—and here you or the shade of Tom Eliot will have to forgive me my nihilism—what comes to the fore is the drama’s psychological subtlety and its saturation with morbidity. Becket, who was once a worldly politico, a man who grew up, like Falstaff, in Cheapside, and who seems moreover to have heard “the chimes at midnight” in his youth just like the fat knight, has become a figure of remarkable and severe asceticism, which expresses itself as a fatalism that seems more appropriate to a Greek than a Christian hero:

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
the cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

When the fourth tempter tries to get him to seek martyrdom, we are struck by the paradox that it would be difficult to tell the difference between pursuing his doom and making it inevitable by doing what he takes to be God’s will. As he himself observes:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

And then there are the laments of the women of the chorus. The one that comes just before Becket’s murder is an outrageous catalogue of Gothic grotesqueries, convincingly medieval, yes, but also the most memorable thing in the play, certainly more memorable than the prayers. It goes on for three pages; I will quote just a bit:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened
By subtile forebodings; I have heard
Fluting in the night-time, fluting and owls, have seen at noon
Scaly wings slanting over, huge and ridiculous. I have tasted
The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon. I have felt
The heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd. I have heard
Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal, jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noise of mouse and jerboa; the laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird. I have seen
Grey necks twisting, rat tails twining, in the thick light of dawn. I have eaten
Smooth creatures still living, with the strong salt taste of living things under the sea; I have tasted
The living lobster, the crab, the oyster, the whelk and the prawn; and they live and spawn in my bowels, and my bowels dissolve in the light of dawn.

Between “jackal, jackass, jackdaw” and those dissolving bowels, it is hard not to see Eliot’s sly irony, his inveterate dry skepticism even in the grave and holy proceedings of this martyrdom. There is a strain of Decadence here that the admirer of John Webster (who “saw the skull beneath the skin”) cannot eradicate, however much he wishes that he were, as he once put it, “classicist in aesthetics.”

In short, Murder in the Cathedral is a remarkable study of the psychological character of the martyr, and even the irreligious can read it for its insights. The tempters pretty clearly exist in Becket’s mind, but I wonder if the whole play is not best construed as a mental projection, so that the chorus too is a part of his psyche: his wailing anima, as Jung would say. No less than Hamlet, about which Eliot was so ambivalent because it hit so close to home, this play is a dramatization of the problem of trying to act when the intellect counsels “detachment from action,” to quote Eliot’s 1951 essay, “Poetry and Drama,” from which I borrow my epigraph. The Christian hero must act “out of time,” rather than in it, must somehow act within time as if within eternity. Eliot ends the paragraph from which I quote this way:

For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Of course, we are being told to ascend from purgatory to paradise, to leave poetry behind and seek God. But even if we cannot, the virtue of an art that produces “serenity, stillness and reconciliation” is perhaps underrated in this time of mandatory subversion. It is, of course, an open question as to whether or not we can leave this blood-, death-, bowel-, and worm-haunted play with a feeling of calm. To end with its most famous single line, spoken by Becket to the agitated chorus as he consoles them with the thought that they will forget their sufferings later, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

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Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

NightwoodNightwood by Djuna Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

…Felix was astonished to find that the most touching flowers laid on the altar he had raised to his imagination were placed there by the people of the underworld…

There are so many novels I have not read that I don’t do a lot of re-reading. I read Nightwood (1936) in a rush about six years ago for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, however, and knew that I’d barely absorbed even the surface meaning of the novel’s dense verbal texture. So I revisited it in this 1995 scholarly edition from Dalkey Archive, which restores the cuts made to the novel’s ethnic and sexual content by its editor, T. S. Eliot, and boasts a full textual apparatus, explanatory annotations, and pages from Barnes’s typescript. This is a superb edition—well, except for the hardcover’s cheap and fragile glue binding—and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand this modernist masterpiece.

Nightwood’s plot, such as it is, is as follows: Felix Volkbein, a Viennese Jew passing as an aristocrat, is introduced to the mysterious Robin Vote by Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a talkative habitué of the Paris underworld. Felix and Robin marry and have a child, but Robin soon takes to haunting the night-world of Paris, where she meets Nora Flood. Despite Nora’s love for Robin, she again spends her nights out—a chapter title calls her “La Somnambule”—and her absence devastates Nora, who turns to Dr. O’Connor and his endless monologues for comfort. Soon, Robin takes up with Jenny Petherbridge, a nervous widow with a penchant for making others as miserable as she is in her shallow passion to be important. The novel ends with an infamously ambiguous scene in which Robin, having left Jenny’s house, enters a chapel where she grapples strangely with Nora’s dog.

(The narrative is putatively autobiographical, as it dramatizes Barnes’s troubled relationship with Thelma Wood—Barnes glossed the title’s meaning as “Nigh T. Wood”—as well as her encounters with one Dan Mahoney, the model for Dr. O’Connor. But I do not much care for biographical interpretations: whether a novelist writes directly from experience or makes everything up from scratch, the only question for criticism is, “Does it live on the page?”)

The novel’s motifs are the following: 1.) bowing or going down, i.e., social and sexual submission (or masochism), which the novel identifies in various ways with Jewish and gay people in general; 2.) the porous boundary between male and female identities, as several key characters are androgynous (Robin, who “looks like a boy,” and Felix’s male-identified mother) or transvestite or even, to use an anachronistic vocabulary, transgender (Dr. O’Connor); 3.) the equally porous boundary between human and animal, which sometimes joins the “go down” pattern (as in, “go down on all fours”); and 4.) the glory and the sorrow of the sexual underworld, the queer-Gothic urban pastoral summoned up by the novel’s mysterious title, the nightwood in which its characters move.

Aside from the doctor, the novel’s characters are rather static or heraldic or allegorical figures; they do not really have the spontaneous life of great fiction’s figures. And while the novel’s tone is wholly its own, it might be ungenerously described, at the conceptual level, as a set of footnotes to Ulysses.

But its prose is some of the best in English in the twentieth century; a Gothic cathedral, complete with witty grotesques and severe saints, built of long hypotactic sentences. A sample, from when Felix first sees Robin:

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.

The exception to the above description is in the doctor’s long speeches; he dominate the chapters he occupies, and speaks—from his bed, where he wears a Mary Pickford wig and a nightgown—for most of the thirty pages of the penultimate chapter, “Go Down, Matthew.” An extract from his more vital and extravagant rhetoric:

“My war brought me many things; let yours bring you as much. Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. No one will be much or little except in someone else’s mind, so be careful of the minds you get into, and remember Lady Macbeth, who had her mind in her hand. We can’t all be as safe as that.”

So what can all this mean? Some reflections below.


…the step of the wandering Jew is in every son.

“We have all become gay white negroes,” the British documentarian Adam Curtis once perhaps offensively complained, in protest against the widespread diffusion in the contemporary period of non-normative or subaltern social and sexual identities. Curtis traces this colonization by bohemia of mainstream society to Norman Mailer’s notorious essay on “The White Negro,” and he attacks it from the socialist left for distracting the working masses, or else compensating them, for their increasing economic exploitation under neoliberalism.

Barnes’s novel is set mostly in the sexual underworld of Paris. But it moves in on this bohemia from the outside; the novel begins with a chapter about Felix Volkbein, a Jewish man trying to pass in Viennese society as an aristocrat. The chapter title, “Bow Down,” refers to his deference to the social elite and traditional society he is trying to enter—though the phrase will later take on other connotations in this novel of erotic masochism. Barnes’s essayistic prose reflects at length on Jewish identity in modern Europe, a theme that seems distant from the concerns of the rest of the novel, a regrettable bout of fashionable prejudice in an otherwise radical queer novel. But Barnes’s intricate philo/anti-Semitic disquisition is central to Nightwood’s social vision, as Lara Trubowitz points out in Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939. Here is Barnes’s key paragraph:

In his search for the particular Comédie humaine Felix had come upon the odd. Conversant with edicts and laws, folk story and heresy, taster of rare wines, thumber of rarer books and old wives’ tales—tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned—read in all plans for fortifications and bridges, given pause by all graveyards on all roads, a pedant of many churches and castles, his mind dimly and reverently reverberated to Madame de Sevigné, Goethe, Loyola and Brantome. But Loyola sounded the deepest note, he was alone, apart and single. A race that has fled its generations from city to city has not found the necessary time for the accumulation of that toughness which produces ribaldry, nor, after the crucifixion of its ideas, enough forgetfulness in twenty centuries to create legend. It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the “collector” of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a “sign.” A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

This is admittedly opaque prose, but the logic seems to be the following: since the Christian has usurped the Jewish God and even scripture (by arrogating the Hebrew Bible, via typology, to the New Testament), “the Jew” is intellectually and spiritually outcast, having to piece together even his own tradition from the culture of a hostile society. But let us extrapolate from this: to the extent that “we”—the kind of people who would write or read a book like Nightwood—are also post- or non-Christian, we too are outcast and peregrine, assembling our spiritual universe from shards and fragments and hints. This is why Felix, in his search for the normative, comes nevertheless “upon the odd.”

Dr. Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, an unlicensed gynecologist, devout Catholic Irish-American from San Francisco, gay cross-dresser, Great War veteran, and alcoholic, dominates the novel. He speaks in endless monologues. They are learned, lyrical, campy, and maudlin. He is described this way:

His fabrications seemed to be the framework of a forgotten, but imposing plan; some condition of life of which he was the sole surviving retainer. His manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movements recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master.

In other words, the way he walks and talks is the way modernist masterpieces (Ulysses, The Waste Land) work: it is a makeshift arrangement of language and behavior assembled from the remains of a vanishing social order, with its armature of myth and scripture barely holding up the chaos. But this condition—of making do with fragments of one’s own tradition—is also how Barnes describes the ordeal of European Jewry; thus, as Trubowitz points out, Barnes uses the figure of “the Jew” as a metonymy for all modern subjects, and for the style of modernism. This is certainly anti-Semitic in its cavalier disregard for Jewish people’s own experiences, traditions, and—given that she was writing in the 1930s—their peril; but Trubowitz calls it philo-Semitic too, in its identification of Jews with an endemic resistance to dominant culture.

The point, though, is that Barnes uses Jewish people, and queer people too (with whom she did not exactly identify, famously saying, “I wasn’t a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”), as a metonymy for the glamorous exile in the urban night woods that her novel evokes with such verbal splendor. “We are all gay white negroes” might be the novel’s motto. Does this make it a work of radicalism—or, as Curtis might object, of crypto-conservatism?

Barnes’s biographer, Phillip Herring, writes, “Barnes would seem to agree with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that human existence is suffering.” Conservatism is the natural political corollary to nihilist metaphysics, for if you believe we exist in a howling void, then you will recognize custom and tradition as the only proven shelters. The rebellion against the normative dominant, too, requires the persistence of the normative dominant for its self-definition; cultural radicalism tends to political conservatism, I have always thought. Indeed, despite Jane Marcus’s well-known and well-argued Bakhtinian reading of Nightwood as a revolutionary text in the female anti-fascist tradition, Barnes’s politics were not remotely of the left. In a letter quoted in Herring’s biography, Barnes complains about an old friend of hers having gone over the Marxists in the “red ‘30s,” the same period when she was forced to work for the WPA, an experience she despised:

He got like that in New York—its [sic] the style now—everyone (in the literary & artistic world) has now a notion that any artistic manifestation is is utterly worthless unless it is “in the Mass”—Filled with “Mass Consciousness”—whatever that is—I am, of course, being an Elizabethan—quite indifferent to the Mass, tho I do not doubt (much to my sorrow) that they will shortly be ruling the roost. What is the most annoying thing about Charles & all the others like him, is that they all take it as if it were something amazing & new a great big discovery—whereas its something the world has fought for 20 centuries, in one form or another—

A modernist anti-democrat, like her champion Eliot, Barnes sees the masses as perennial forces of conformity, enemies of art. This is not really surprising; what is surprising is that anybody ever wanted to identify bohemia—sexual and aesthetic—with the political left in the first place. The intention of its various partisans notwithstanding, the left has historically empowered the state and its centripetal agencies. The state, tolerating nothing outside itself, not only threatens to use the masses as justification for the cleansing of bohemia’s cruising-ground pissoirs and carnivalesque circuses, but, as I said above, it also extirpates the tradition against which bohemia necessarily defines itself. It razes the edifice of Christianity, brings the wandering Jew home, and abolishes the night in which Robin Vote and Dr. Matthew O’Connor sport like fauna in the forest. Even internally, bohemia is not democratic: it is, rather, an aristocracy of spirit. For these reasons, Nightwood is among the most reactionary of American classics, despite or even—what will confound the identity politics of today—because of its having nary a straight white male in its cast of characters.

As for Barnes and identity politics, Herring reports this remark, not very congruent with literary feminism today: “I think only two women have written books worth reading, Emily Brontë and myself.” (This oddly resembles Dylan Thomas’s assertion that Nightwood is one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman—though he did not name the other two!) On sexual identity, Dr. O’Connor sums up the nominalist and anti-essentialist attitudes of Foucault and Vidal in one memorably lamenting epigram: “You can lay a hundred bricks and not be called a brick-layer; but lay one boy and you are a bugger!”


“God, children know something they can’t tell, they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

Leaving politics aside, I love Nightwood. No novel so beautifully and intelligently written can fall to be a landmark in the history of the form. In fact, it should probably be a model of the form. In his famous 1937 introduction to the American edition, T. S. Eliot writes:

In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term “novel” has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes’s style is “poetic prose.” But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.

I grant that Barnes sacrifices some of the vitality of less closely composed fictions; despite the novel’s late invocation of Dostoevsky in the final chapter’s title, “The Possessed,” Nightwood never creates the vertiginous sense that its characters are somehow alive in another world and capable of anything—the sense you get from Dostoevsky (or Tolstoy or Dickens or, each in her own way, both Brontës). The doctor is a partial exception; he really is like a Shakespearean character, a voluble nihilist like Hamlet or Edmund or Falstaff, one you wish to hear give an opinion on everything, but even his baroque intelligence is relatively static; he does not change or grow.

Is this a reasonable price to pay for taking up a challenge that Dostoevsky and the rest of the nineteenth-century masters didn’t have to face—the challenge, that is, of writing a novel that suitably differentiates itself from competing media? Every time I open a contemporary novel and feel I am reading an unproduced screenplay, I want to throw it down. Every time I go to write and find myself producing slangy, aimless dialogues that would require charismatic actors to be persuasive, I am disappointed in myself. Contemporary novels are not really written, Eliot said nearly a century ago, and it has only gotten worse. Maybe to really write them is a loss, an abdication of the novel’s great potential to create an inner theater, and Nightwood—more tableau than drama—does not quite disconfirm the hypothesis. But there are sentences, paragraphs, pages in it that I would love to have written, that I loved to read. I read this novel once to take an exam on it (the worst reason to read literature, surely) and then again to actually understand it; I would read it a third time for pure pleasure.


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Sublimity Listed: Bloom’s 12 American Writers

Harold Bloom has a new book coming out—rather like my grandmother, he’s been falsely prophesying his imminent demise for almost my entire lifetime. Since the end will come for us all eventually, I’m always glad to see old Bloom fighting the good fight.* Now he lists his 12 authors who best exemplify “the American Sublime” (see the link for explanations):













Where to begin the parlor game of contesting and correcting? From an identity politics perspective, we have one woman and no people of color (reactionary), though the list is also somewhere between 25% and 45% queer (progressive).

Bloom, castigating identity politics in every other creed and ethnos, does not practice it in favor of his own: there are no Jewish writers on the list. No Catholics either, unless Eliot counts. I suppose those are defensible choices, given Bloom’s selection criteria: “the American Sublime,” a dialectic of allegory and antinomianism more or less invented by Emerson**, is an agon with the Puritan inheritance, thus largely an affair of renegade Protestants (which Eliot also was, whatever else he was).

But even with those cultural strictures in place, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth should surely make the cut—O’Connor for the way her Catholic sense of order frames, ironizes, and redeems the ecstatic American religion; and Roth for his ferocious embrace of the antinomianism in our spiritual life, along with his realistic and rueful sense, informed by immigrant experience and Jewish tradition, of all the obligations that make antinomianism an impossible legacy, if a necessary irritant.

It seems to me that the list, terminating as it does with modernism, would come to a far more natural climax with Ralph Ellison: he was the one who put it all together, synthesizing the Emersonian creed and its Melvillean critique in the jazz-inflected mythic-method idiom of high modernism, as well as opening the American Sublime tradition to hitherto-excluded groups. Ellison assured for at least another two or three generations the continuity of the American novel, that allegorical and romantic odd national variant that is so at odds with its European counterpart.

Bloom hates Poe, to a comical degree, so of course he would not put him on such a list, regarding him no doubt as a French author anyway. But Bloom also dislikes Eliot, and Eliot courted the French tradition in ways Poe never did or could: here I think placing Eliot on the list rather than excluding him is Bloom’s aggressive act. He gathers the poet to a tradition he would not have wanted to join: The Waste Land, against all odds, is a great American poem. Eliot would make my list as well.

Hart Crane is Bloom’s sentimental favorite but means nothing to me. LikeBloom’s protege and fellow controversialist Camille Paglia, I find Mark Twain a minor author (in the old-fashioned, not the Deleuzean, sense) and his schtick obnoxious. I could be persuaded that Robert Frost is a more complex and troubling figure than we learned about in middle school, but he still does not speak to me in any great way. Is he not a verse Thoreau? And was Thoreau not a superior poet even in prose?

Note the eclipse of Hemingway and Fitzgerald: “Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner” was once a unit, but Faulkner has clearly outpaced his rivals, extending an influence in space and time, all the way to contemporary China, that the other two can’t match. I agree with their exclusion. The first six authors on the list would be hard to quarrel with. So, were I to make my own “canon of the American Sublime” according to Bloom’s criteria, it would look like this:













One could imagine still more writers to include: Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy. Maybe even that old fascist, Pound. On the other hand, there are many fine American writers who fit very uneasily into this American Sublime category: Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport, etc. These are the perils of a national canon. But I believe Bloom has identified a genuine and perhaps dominant strain in American writing, even if there are others equally valuable.

I always enjoy the provocation of a good list; it focuses the mind on the identification of values, and that is always needed—needed all the more, in fact, if we are good postmodernists and agree that values are highly contingent and permanently up for discussion.

*Speaking of “the good fight,” by which I mean that against precursors and against time, I highly recommend Daniel Green’s lucid explication and contextual endorsement of the literary theory that made Bloom’s name.

**The phrase comes, I believe, from the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens about how to reconcile visionary intensity with quotidian experience (if I am reading the rather cryptic poem correctly).