Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wordsworth and Pleasure

After reading William Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads innumerable times, I believe I have spotted an angle which has been scarcely touched before. Wordsworth uses the word pleasure 25-30 times in the preface. The fact that the preface is only twelve(ish) pages long makes this significant. There is also some irony in it; few people think of Wordsworth as a poet of pleasure. That honor usually goes to Mr. John Keats, who emphasizes the body, the non-cognitive (post-cognitive), sensual richness, heavenly prosody, O for a draught of vintageetc. It turns out that Wordsworth was as intent on "imparting pleasure" as Keats was, but the major difference seems to be this: Wordsworth associated pleasure with thought (specifically, thoughts occurring in a certain associative relation to each other); thinking, in Wordsworth's self-created aesthetic milieu, leads to satisfaction, which inverts Keats' "tease us out of thought" dynamic. He is tracing the primary laws of our nature, and we may gain pleasure through thoughtfully deciphering them. Here he is, cogitating at Tintern Abbey:

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

Tracing primary laws is tied here to the figure of Wordsworth himself; and the law has to do, evidently, with using the mind instrumentally as a kind of digital camera, to let images impress themselves on it, so that they might be memorized, stored, and hauled out in due course when the appropriate occasion arises. "The picture of the mind" is more than a cognitive construct, but cognition itself is given pride of place; it is the enabler for pleasure to enter consciousness. How different is Wordsworth's conception of sensation than Keats, whose wonted gestalt sensibility is more present-minded, prosody-sensitive (to Keats, Apollonian), less conservative, and less bound to processes abstracted away from physical reality. Here, Keats visits the cottage of Robert Burns:

My pulse is warm with thine own Barley-bree,
My head is light with pledging a great soul,
My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal;
Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow has tramped o'er and o'er-
Yet can I think of thee till thought it blind-
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name-
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!

Pleasure comes from unmediated physicality; thought, in Keats' conception of pleasure (and melopoeia), is something in the way, something often futile. Yet, I am unaware that Keats made any special mention of pleasure (beyond its chiasmus, in art, with intensity) in his famous letters. Wordsworth is the Romantic with the overt pleasure principle, and it is quite curious, considering how convoluted his conception of pleasure seems to have been. Somebody could (and probably will) take this in a New Historical direction, and demonstrate why these two established representatives of two generations of British Romanticism had such widely divergent conceptions of pleasure. Notice the essence of the difference; Wordsworth wants to craft pleasure for the reader; Keats actually experiences pleasure first-hand in the poem;  which is then transferred, hopefully, to us, to be absorbed by osmosis, via richly detailed prosody, and (as) a direct experience of Keats' visionary frisson.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy

Alain Robbe-Grillet died last year. He was the first and among the most famous of the "New Novelists" produced by France in the second half of the twentieth century. Jealousy is a short novel that some take to be his masterpiece. It was roundly panned when it first came out, but eventually came to be seen more kindly. What's pictured above is a map of the plantation house where the novel takes place. "Taking place," where Robbe-Grillet is concerned, is sort of a misleading phrase; Jealousy winds, folds in upon itself, repeats parts like a piece of music, deliberately doesn't cohere, and leaves us pretty much in the dark, so that non-linearity becomes not only a feature of the text but a distinguishing characteristic. That is what, for me, makes it exciting; Robbe-Grillet uses non-linearity the way Jimi Hendrix used the electric guitar; as a kind of mechanical mistress, a way to create a sense of stasis that is not static, sight that is not vision, affect that has no concrete correlative. A... is the muse of the text (if we can posit that there is a muse for the text), a beautiful woman, the implicit protagonist's wife. He suspects that she is having an affair with Franck, a neighbor who also owns a plantation. All the incredible sexual tension happens in a perpetual ellipse:

The hand with tapering fingers has clenched into a fist on the white cloth. The five widespaced fingers have closed over the palm with such force that they have pulled the cloth with them. The cloth shows five convergent creases, much longer than the fingers which have produced them.

Only the first joint is still visible. On the ring finger gleams a thin ribbon of gold that barely rises above the flesh. Around the hand radiate the creases, looser and looser as they move out from the center, but also wider and wider, finally becoming a uniform white surface on which Franck's brown, muscular hand wearing a large flat ring of the same type comes to rest.

Robbe-Grillet was apparently interested in creating objective prose; interiority, conventional psychology and character development were deemed passe. When Roland Barthes writes about Robbe-Grillet, he emphasizes "sight," the visual dimension of his work, that what we see (visualize) is what we get. However, it is part and parcel of Robbe-Grillet's peculiar magic that by being entirely objective and ocular, he manages to imply (and create by implying) everything else: character, interior detail, psychology, affect. It is in the dynamic tension between a streamlined surface and a convoluted, whirlpool-like depth that Robbe-Grillet achieves solidity. "Reading the surface" allows adequate pleasure, in and of itself; Robbe-Grillet is the most detailed novelist this side of Marcel Proust (though the details are invariably outward and objective); but a reading that does not acknowledge a subterranean level of activity would, I think, be missing part of the point.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Being Taught, and Teaching

Lately, I've been feeling pretty fortunate. I had two books come out last year, both in the fall, and, little more than six months later, both of them are being taught. Beams has been used by several students in an undergraduate English course at a conservative college (Wofford, Prof. Jennie Neighbors) in South Carolina. They have taken the thing apart, in a search for what motivates, animates, and designates avant-garde (post-avant) poetry. The students were given a choice of a plethora of texts, and they chose mine. I have befriended one of them on Facebook, and corresponded with the professor, a delightful person with an adventurous spirit as regards literature. What an affirmation! I think of it as luck, mostly. Opera Bufa is going to be presented to a class at Loyola in Chicago this summer. One of the things I'll be doing in Chicago in June is speaking to, and reading for, this class. Again, just good luck, happy chance. I can only hope that this luck, this feeling of my books actually doing something in the world, continues, and give thanks I've been in the right place at the right time.

Also, this goes to show that not all academia is mired in provincialism. This was my first semester teaching, and, though the syllabus was not of my choosing, I tried to be as heterogeneous in the way I presented the material as possible. I taught John Donne alongside my friend Chris Goodrich (specifically, his poems in Ocho #11), Twelfth Night alongside Tom Stoppard, and hit the students with a John Keats chaser after a long day of George Herbert. It is my hope that me and all my friends will continue to transform academia to the point that it is, or can be, genuinely edifying, a realm in which legitimate literary discoveries can be made. Next semester I teach Comp-not much I can do with that- but I am going to try nonetheless.

P.S. There is an interesting review of Beams up in Galatea Resurrects #9, turned in by Argotist Online editor Jeffrey Side.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Whatever Happened to Arthur Rimbaud?

At a certain, early stage in my poetic development, especially my State College years, Arthur Rimbaud was a pivotal influence. Answered Prayers is a testament to that. I had, at one point, entire chunks of A Season in Hell memorized, and would spout them off at readings. Yet, not at Penn, or New England College, or Temple, has Rimbaud been presented to me in an academic setting. Come to think of it, Baudelaire and Verlaine haven't put in an appearance either. What gives? Aren't the Symbolists an interesting crew? Don't they have something substantial to offer? Upon re-reading Season in Hell, after many years, the simple answer is yes. Rimbaud's little manifesto is a fascinating melange of dynamic oppositions, animated by his distinctly adolescent (but compellingly incisive) sensibility: saved/damned, historicized/ahistorical, mad/sane, individual/socially involved. Rimbaud uses oppositions to crack open his own tender psyche like a nutshell. He both exposes the essential frailty of self-schemas and gives us an opportunity to watch him construct an identity-in-text right before our eyes. Construction of identity is really what Rimbaud is on about here:

I inherit from my Gaulish ancestors my whitish-blue eye, my narrow skull, and my lack of skill in fighting. My attire seems to me as barbarous as theirs. But I don't butter my hair.

I loathe all trades. Masters and servants--all--peasants, base.

I am the slave of my baptism.

I am not a prisoner of my reason.

Why is Rimbaud not being taught? My guess is that he is being taught: in France! There is a sort of provincialism endemic to academia which I am only now noticing. Schools tend to stick to the literature of their country, which is a rip-off, but there you are. Nonetheless, it is delightful to me that a text which I haven't read in years still has the power to transport me, especially since most of what I read back then I can't stand now. Our era puts great emphasis on identity construction as an aesthetic issue. The dialectics of the Deconstructionists, especially, would seem to be quite germane to Rimbaud's investigations. He deconstructs himself, and the thrill is in watching him put himself back together again.

P.S. I have some sonnets from When You Bit... out in Otoliths and in No Tell Motel.

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