Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Pilots

—You have the urge to steer one?
—Yeah, I do. With a giant wheel. I'd just be there. I'd be a little small, compared to the wheel, and I'd be steering it. It'd be great.

Kate Greenstreet


I think what pilots do is wonderful.

Tony Tost


Since the title of one of my favourite pieces in Kate Greenstreet's The Last 4 Things is today's date (it's on page 75 in the section called "56 Days"), I'd like to draw attention to its likeness to Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot", which is the poem that got me interested in contemporary American poetry almost seven years ago.

Both poems are about the (impossible) desire (or lack thereof) to be "at the helm", to steer the ship. More specifically: they bring to presence the emotion of not being in control of the ship. Both, I would therefore argue, indicate an anti-Palinurian mood.

Palinurus was Aeneas' disenchanted pilot. Cyril Connolly used his name as a pseudonym when he wrote The Unquiet Grave; indeed, Palinurus is theme of that book. Connolly explains in the introduction:

The plot of the book is contained in the title. The Unquiet Grave first suggests the tomb of Palinurus, pilot of Æneas; it is the cenotaph from which he haunts us. 'The ghost of Palinurus must be appeased'. He is the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within. (xiii)

The quoted sentence about the ghost of Palinurus is from Servius's commentary on the Aeneid, which Connolly quotes also as an epigraph (in Latin) to the book and then again (and again in Latin) nearing the end of part one.

It is just after Christmas, 1942. Palinurus writes as follows in his "journal of 'back thoughts'":

No opinions, no ideas, no true knowledge of anything, no ideals, no inspiration; a fat, slothful, querulous, greedy, impotent carcass; a stump, a decaying belly washed up on the shore. 'Manes Palinuri esse placandos!' Always tired, always bored, always hurt, always hating. (24)

That is a direct statement of the Palinurian mood, here owed, perhaps, to what Connolly describes as his "obsession with pleasure at a time when nearly all pleasures were forbidden" (xii). What would he have felt today, we may wonder, in a time when all pleasures are arguably mandatory?

Greenstreet and Tost are not trying to appease Palinurus. They have, perhaps, given up trying. Their would-be pilots are wholly incompetent. Indeed, in these poems, a selfless incompetence replaces Connolly's greedy impotence. Incompetence, of course, is by no means straightforwardly preferable to impotence, but a different sort of poetry seems to emerge from it. Here are the closing lines of Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot":

Repeat after me, 'I am not the pilot,
I will not attempt to fly the ship.'

Folks I am not a pilot and therefore
I am not at the glamorous end of the sword.

I have no feelings for the machine.

I know what pilots look like.

I am not a pilot but I am beginning to understand the pilot's cause:

it's the same one we all have.

Recall that Virgil's Palinurus, bored and disappointed with his leader, jumped ship (so goes Connolly's theory) in the middle of the night and was killed, three days later, on the shore near Velia, for his clothes. Greenstreet seems to invert this theme:

—The ship is white. Mainly white, it has some blue.
—It's at sea?
—Of course. Just water everywhere. At night. With the stars.
—You'd be steering your ship.
—At night would be the main time.
—How about being on the shore when someone else is on the ship?
—I wouldn't. I wouldn't do that again.
—Did it ever happen?
—Oh, it always happens. To everyone. That's life.

Like I say, we cannot say we prefer the anti-Palinurian mood to the Palinurian one. (Invisible Bride, for example, is not a better book than The Unquiet Grave, but it is a distinctly comparable one. I am trying to make that comparison.) Palinurian impotence and anti-Palinurian incompetence are merely the formal conditions of particular species of suffering that must be overcome aesthetically in a given poem.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

More Notes on the History of the Individual

A while back I posted these snippets.

1938: "In this domain the individual will remain, individualism will remain, without any theoretical and ideological bulwarks. A man will continue to gain or lose his own soul." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 52)

1944: "How do you react to our slogan 'Total Everybody Always'? Have you at last understood that your miserable failure as an individual is proof that you pursue a lost cause?" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 100)

1947: "Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. He lit a cigarette." (Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, p. 5)

I just found another one in, predictably, Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn (p. 122):

1939: As an individual, as flesh and blood, I am leveled down each day to make the fleshless, bloodless city whose perfection is the sum of all logic and death to the dream. I am struggling against an oceanic death in which my own death is but a drop of water evaporating.

The theme I'm building here is pretty straightforward. In the first half of the twentieth century, modern literature was exploring the possibility that the individual was being destroyed.