long-forgotten american decadence: the book of jade

Pronounced “brilliant” by William James — one of his professors at Harvard — David Park Barnitz (June 24, 1878 – October 10, 1901) was an American poet, known for his one and only volume of poetry, a homage to the decadent writers of European letters, The Book of Jade. Within weeks of its publication Barnitz would be dead, a rumoured suicide.

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From Wikipedia: 

Barnitz adop[ed] the decadent style to create a monument of unrelieved and unrelenting oblivionist verse, fit to take its place alongside the works of such other gothic and macabre anti-luminaries as Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Count Stenbock, James Thomson (B.V.), H. P. Lovecraft, and the German Bonaventura. A classmate of fellow poet Wallace Stevens, Park Barnitz was a visionary who prefigured modernism in his adoption of new paradigms and literary styles as a form of mask. And the mask which Barnitz adopted, that of the decadents, fitted his intellectual cynicism and misanthropy precisely. The decadents, Barnitz wrote, though they “do not lecture at Harvard”, “seem to me the most delightful of contemporary French writers.” “All these slaves of the opal,” Barnitz goes on, “as one of their obscurest members proclaims them, with their one great man (Verlaine) and their hundred pathetic poets, it is surely a fitting thing to admire. ‘How nice of them,’ one feels like saying, ‘to be so dear!’ They have not produced a new art, but they have amused.”

 

For more, see the comprehensive www.bookofjade.com — a real labour of love (although “love” may not be the correct word to employ in connection with Barnitz’s milieu of decadence) — and this great post, too, at the wonderful rare books site, www.bookride.com.


An example of Barnitz’s ontology:

Mankind

 

They do not know that they are wholly dead,
Nor that their bodies are to the worm given o’er;

They pass beneath the sky forevermore;

With their dead flesh the earth is cumbered.

 

Each day they drink of wine and eat of bread,

And do the things that they have done before;

And yet their hearts are rotten to the core,

And from their eyes the light of life is fled.

 

Surely the sun is weary of their breath;

They have no ears, and they are dumb and blind;

Long time their bodies hunger for the grave.

 

How long, O God, shall these dead corpses rave?

When shall the earth be clean of humankind?

When shall the sky cease to behold this death?

 

If you’ve ever had to read Hegel, then you’ll appreciate Barnitz’s take on the great German nineteenth century metaphysicist:

Hegel


Because my hope is dead, my heart a stone,

I read the words that Hegel once did write

An idiot gibbering in the dark alone

Till on my heart and vision fell the night.

 

Both poerms are from David Park Barnitz’s The Book of Jade (1901), which may be downloaded here.

 

james merrill’s ouija board: the opening of the book of ephraim

Known in popular circles as “the Ouija poet”—one who composed with assistance from the spirit world—Merrill was always most popular with scholarly audiences. As Brigitte Weeks noted in the New York Times Book Review, “Mr. Merrill’s artistic distinction is for the most part acknowledged, particularly in the academy, where he has already become part of the permanent canon. With his technical virtuosity and his metaphysical broodings, he is, like Wallace Stevens, an ideal seminar poet whose complex work lends itself to exhaustive explication.” . . . 

It was “The Book of Ephraim”—which appeared in Divine Comedies—that prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic, “James Merrill . . . has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies . . . converts me, absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill. . . . The book’s eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won’t do) is a 100-page verse-tale, ‘The Book of Ephraim,’ an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats’ ‘A Vision,’. . . and even some aspects of Proust.” . . .

The twenty-six sections of “The Book of Ephraim” correspond to the board’s A to Z alphabet, the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number correspond to the board’s numbering from zero to nine, and the three sections of Scripts for the Pageant (“Yes,” “&,” and “No”) correspond to the board’s Yes & No. The progression of poems also represents a kind of celestial hierarchy, with each book representing communication with a higher order of spirits than the one before. Humans in the poem are identified by their initials—DJ and JM; spirits speak in all capitals. By the time Merrill transcribed the lessons of the archangels in book three, he offered nothing less than a model of the universe. “Were such information conveyed to us by a carnival ‘spiritual adviser,’ we could dismiss it as mere nonsense,” observed Fred Moramarco in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “but as it comes from a poet of Merrill’s extraordinary poetic and intellectual gifts, we sit up and take notice.”  

In the first book, Merrill’s guide is Ephraim, “a Greek Jew / Born AD 8 at XANTHOS,” later identified as “Our Familiar Spirit.” Over a period of twenty years and in a variety of settings, Ephraim alerts DJ and JM to certain cosmic truths, including the fact that “on Earth / We’re each the REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON” who guides our souls through the nine stages of being until we become patrons for other souls. Witty, refined, full of gossip, Ephraim is “a clear cousin to Merrill’s poetic voice,” Kalstone wrote in the Times Literary Supplement 

Other spirits also appear in the poem, many of them family members or old friends who have died: Merrill’s mother and father, the young poet Hans Lodeizen (whose death Merrill addressed in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace), the Athenian Maria Mitsotaki (a green-thumbed gardener who died of cancer), as well as literary figures such as W. H. Auden and Plato. They form a community, according to Ephraim, “WITHIN SIGHT OF ALL CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER DEAD OR ALIVE NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING.” As Helen Vendler explained in the New York Review of Books, “The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that . . . the poet’s paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined.” For this reason, Vendler maintained that “The Book of Ephraim” is “centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse’s materials.”  

Aware of the incredulity his spiritualism would provoke, Merrill addressed this issue early in book one: “The question / Of who or what we took Ephraim to be / And of what truths (if any) we considered / Him spokesman, had arisen from the start.” Indeed, Vendler said, “for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija ‘guests’ from the other world a folie a deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson.” 

In a Poetry review, Joseph Parisi suggested that Merrill used “his own doubt and hesitation to undercut and simultaneously to underscore his seriousness in recounting . . . his fabulous . . . message. Anticipating the incredulity of ‘sophisticated’ and even cynical readers, the poet portrays his own apparent skepticism at these tales from the spirit world to preempt and disarm the attacks, while making the reader feel he is learning the quasi-occult truths . . . along with the poet.” 

As the experience proceeded, Merrill’s skepticism declined. And while the reader’s may not, Judith Moffett suggested in American Poetry Review that disbelief is not the issue: “Surely any literary work ought to be judged not on its matter but on the way the matter is presented and treated. . . . The critical question, then, should not be, Is this the story he ought to have told? but How well has he told this story?” Moffett, as well as numerous other critics, believed Merrill has told it very well: “‘The Book of Ephraim’ is a genuinely great poem—a phrase no one should use lightly—and very possibly the most impressive poetic endeavor in English in this century.” 

—from the James Merrill page at Poetry Foundation

 

 
 

 

THE BOOK OF EPHRAIM

 

 

Tu credi ‘l vero; ché i minori e ‘ grandi 

                                                                   di questa vita miran ne lo speglio 

in che, prima che pensi, il pensier pandi. 

Paradiso XV 


Admittedly I err by undertaking

This in its present form. The baldest prose

Reportage was called for, that would reach

The widest public in the shortest time.

Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.

Time, the very attar of the Rose,

Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,

I and the deadline. Also my subject matter

Gave me pause–so intimate, so novel.

Best after all to do it as a novel?

Looking about me, I found characters

Human and otherwise (if the distinction

Meant anything in fiction). Saw my way

To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed

For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.

Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme

Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every

Least detail exposed to it. I came

To see it as an old, exalted one:

The incarnation and withdrawal of

A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye’s.

I had stylistic hopes moreover. Fed

Up so long and variously by

Our age’s fancy narrative concoctions,

I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found

In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean

Over the centuries by mild old tongues,

Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.

Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant

Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)

Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,

Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them

In childhood, if at all, by adults whom

They could not love or honor. So my narrative

Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented; 

My characters, conventional stock figures

Afflicted to a minimal degree

With personality and past experience–

A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,

The kinds of being we recall from Grimm, 

Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell’ arte. 

That such a project was beyond me merely

Incited further futile stabs at it.

My downfall was “word-painting.” Exquisite

Peek-a-boo plumage, limbs aflush from sheer

Bombast unfurling through the troposphere

Whose earthward denizens’ implosion startles

Silly quite a little crowd of mortals

–My readers, I presumed from where I sat

In the angelic secretariat.

The more I struggled to be plain, the more

Mannerism hobbled me. What for?

Since it had never truly fit, why wear

The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

Measures, furthermore, had been defined

As what emergency required. Blind

Promptings put at last the whole mistaken

Enterprise to sleep in darkest Macon 

(Cf. “The Will”), and I alone was left

To tell my story. For it seemed that Time— 

­The grizzled washer of his hands appearing

To say so in a spectrum-bezeled space

Above hot water–Time would not;

Whether because it was running out like water

Or because January draws this bright

Line down the new page I take to write:

The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings

Spent With David Jackson at the Ouija Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.

 

Walls of ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty

Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn).

Overhead, a turn of the century dome

Expressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lys

In palpable relief to candlelight.

Wallace Stevens, with that dislocated

Perspective of the newly dead, would take it

For an alcove in the Baptist church next door

Whose moonlit tower saw eye to eye with us.

The room breathed sheer white curtains out. In blew

Elm- and chimney-blotted shimmerings, so

Slight the tongue of land, so high the point of view.

1955 this would have been,

Second summer of our tenancy.

Another year we’d buy the old eyesore

Half of whose top story we now rented;

Build, above that, a glass room off a wooden

Stardeck; put a fireplace in; make friends.

Now, strangers to the village, did we even

Have a telephone? Who needed one!

We had each other for communication

And all the rest. The stage was set for Ephraim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Properties : A milk glass tabletop.

 

A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.

Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet

Over which the letters A to Z

Spread in an arc, our covenant

With whom it would concern; also

The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.

What more could a familiar spirit want?

Well, when he knew us better, he’d suggest

We prop a mirror in the facing chair.

Erect and gleaming, silver-hearted guest,

We saw each other in it. He saw us.

(Any reflecting surface worked for him.

Noons, D and I might row to a sandbar

Far enough from town for swimming naked

Then pacing the glass treadmill hardly wet

That healed itself perpetually of us—

Unobserved, unheard we thought, until

The night he praised our bodies and our wit,

Our blushes in a twinkling overcome.)

Or we could please him by swirling a drop of rum

Inside the cup that, overturned and seeming

Slightly to lurch at such times in mid-glide,

Took heart from us, dictation from our guide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But he had not yet found us. Who was there?

 

The cup twitched in its sleep. “Is someone there?”

We whispered, fingers light on Willowware,

When the thing moved. Our breathing stopped. The cup,

Glazed zombie of itself, was on the prowl

Moving, but dully, incoherently,

Possessed, as we should soon enough be told,

By one or another of the myriads

Who hardly understand, through the compulsive

Reliving of their deaths, that they have died

–By fire in this case, when a warehouse burned.

HELLP O SAV ME scrawled the cup

As on the very wall flame rippled up,

Hypnotic wave on wave, a lullaby

Of awfulness. I slumped. D: One more try.

Was anybody there? As when a pike

Strikes, and the line singing writes in lakeflesh

Highstrung runes, and reel spins and mind reels

YES a new and urgent power YES

Seized the cup. It swerved, clung, hesitated,

Darted off, a devil’s darning needle

Gyroscope our fingers rode bareback

(But stopping dead the instant one lost touch)

Here, there, swift handle pointing, letter upon

Letter taken down blind by my free hand—

At best so clumsily, those early sessions

Break off into guesswork, paraphrase.

Too much went whizzing past. We were too nice

To pause, divide the alphabetical

Gibberish into words and sentences.

Yet even the most fragmentary message—

Twice as entertaining, twice as wise

As either of its mediums–enthralled them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a poem for summer time by wally stevens


the woman in sunshine 

 

It is only that this warmth and movement are like

The warmth and movement of a woman.

 

It is not that there is any image in the air

Nor the beginning nor end of a form:

 

It is empty. But a woman in threadless gold

Burns us with brushings of her dress

 

And a dissociated abundance of being,

More definite for what she is —

 

Because she is disembodied,

Bearing the odors of the summer fields,

 

Confessing the taciturn and yet indifferent,

Invisibly clear, the only love.

frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 


—Frederic Jameson


The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.

Notes

7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).

 

—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

 

from old, cold wallace stevens: “one must have a mind of winter”

a meditation on wintry nothingness


The Snow Man


One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

“archaic cooings: byzantine blue”… echoes of hart crane & wallace stevens in henri cole’s poetry

Cover Image

“The Suicide Hours”

 

Ignorant and unabashed, I sit in a tub of gas,

cherishing nothing and nobody.

My head, that well-fed lamb,

cannot even find you, O God, whom I loved.

My flesh is the flesh of a single man:

mutable, corrupt.

I do not believe in "like mother like son."

I do not believe life is art, undone.

I do not believe in the orange poppies,

odorless as wax. Cheated and sucked dry,

I believe in nothing, except the wooden match,

thrown like my blue daddy’s neck-cross,

into the bath where faith, hope, & charity

toss against spent-semen, saliva, & tears.

  

“Blue Grotto”

Curlyhead was bellowing Puccini
and making the boat rock.
The sun shone like a Majolica clock.
The sea boiled noisily.
I lay down like a child in a box.
It was my birthday.

     Above, on a cliff,
a mule pissed on us.
Then the dragging chain
as we lurched into the chasm.
Archaic cooings: Byzantine blue.
J removed her tortoiseshell glasses,
crossing her pretty legs.
C thoughtfully stroked his goatee.
I sat up, as in a coffin
after three hundred lovers.
Starboard, an oar-blade splashed
emeralds against valedictory black.
Once again, description,
unemotional shorthand
for sublimated wisdom,
fails to conjure what we felt;
the poem years for something more.
Like me: childless.
My love & I: gutted words.
My prick: like an instrument for an altar
or surgeon’s table,
shiny & maleficent.
     Stalactites,
like jaws, bedeviled us.
Sunlight struck the sandy bottom:
Giotto blue, the Tennessean said;
Florida blue, the tobacco queen said;
Cognitive blue, I, the unanalyzed, said.
Nothing from Curlyhead, who rowed vigorously.
Then a serpentine thing,
with five pairs of legs grasping at us,
appeared beside our little boat,
unidentifiably damaged,

     as the young man was,
who boarded our bus going home.
His arms flailed spasmodically.
His face was pinched like a retarded boy’s.
I dedicate this poem to him,
whose unneediness shamed me,
demanding I acknowledge the best in myself,
whose arms & legs
racked the blue lapidary air,
as if burdened by ropes, lantern, & pick,
while he bantered brilliantly to himself,
the mind struggling
to overcome the stick that is the body.

—from Henri Cole, The Visible Man

 
Praise for The Visible Man

"Henri Cole emerged as an authentic poet in his last book, The Look of Things, a volume worthy of its Stevensian title. His new book, The Visible Man, after many readings, persuades me that Cole will be a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and of Hart Crane is beautifully extended in The Visible Man, particularly in the magnificent sequence ‘Apollo.’ Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true austhetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man."

—Harold Bloom

 
"First Loves"
Henri Cole


From the start, I was drawn to poems that resisted my intelligence. In the poems of Hart Crane I found this resistance especially exciting because they were by a homosexual often writing about love. I read them at a time in my life when love and poetry were the only things that mattered to me. Not surprisingly, one was the source of pain and the other was a kind of painkiller. In truth, nothing much has changed since then. Crane’s poems still send a bolt through me. Pain glitters on the edges of them; I expect it is often the pain of unsanctioned love. I like to think this love, despite its humiliations, was enabling to him as a poet, that an absence in life helped him to find a presence in art.

Perhaps, I sometimes rationalize, the ecstasy of sexual love is not so different from the near religious fervor of creating, or rather assembling language into poetry. "Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…." he writes in his lyric sequence "Voyages," a poem that seems to use the flux of tides as a trope for the coming and going of Crane’s own merchant marine-lover. I believe that as a young man I was "a terrible puppet of my dreams" when it came to love. I suppose we all are. Crane felt no different writing "And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love… / But not for long to hold each desperate choice." It was the cryptic surfaces, the language of non self-exposure, much of it encoded with suffering, that interested me most in Crane. At a time when I could not bear what was minimal and plain in poetry, he gave the young homosexual I was a model, an inflected language, an ecstatic voice, to begin to write about the social and domestic life I wanted to reveal secretly in art. This evening, as I write, through my desk window, across the park, I see one man embrace another on a rooftop terrace. What I witness unexpectedly is the invisible, the true, which is what poems are, what mine strive to be. Some might say I have confused my own dreams and ambitions with Crane’s, projecting myself upon him. Nevertheless, it was this projection that illuminated, in my twenties, many solitary Manhattan nights, which, like the bottom of the sea (where Crane is) were cruel and desolate.

 —from “First Loves,” in Crossroads, Journal of the Poetry Society of America, at http://www.poetrysociety.org/journal/articles/firstloves.html

 

wallace stevens on the geography of the imagination

A man in Paris does not imagine the same sort of
thing that a native of Uganda imagines. If each could
transmit his imagination to the other, so that the man
in Paris, lying awake at night, could suddenly hear
a footfall that meant the presence of some inimical
and merciless monstrosity, and if the man in Uganda
found himself in, say, the Muenster at Basel and
experienced what is to be experienced there, what
words would the Parisian find to forestall his fate and
what understanding would the Ugandan have of his
incredible delirium? If we live in the mind, we live
in the imagination. It is a commonplace to realize
the extent of artifice in the external world and to say
that Florence is more imaginative than Dublin, that
blue and white Munich is more imaginative than
white and green Havana, and so on; or to say that, in
this town, no single public object of the imagination
exists, while in the Vatican City, say, no public object
exists that is not an object of the imagination. What is
engaging us at the moment has nothing to do with the
external world. We are concerned with the extent of
artifice within us and, almost parenthetically, with the
question of its value.
 
— Wallace Stevens, "Imagination as Value"