Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Notes on the Novel

The Pangrammaticon is founded on the idea that language can be used in various ways—that there are different kinds of "usage". In general, there are four kinds of linguistic experience: scientific, political, philosophical, and poetic. Science uses language to represent objects, politics, to represent subjects. Philosophy uses language to present concepts, poetry to present emotions. Now, obviously, scientists, politicians, philosophers and poets are complicated creatures and don't always confine themselves so narrowly. But this only shows that they sometimes lose their focus.

Novelists, I now want to argue, are free to use language however they like. A novel is part scientific treatise, part political tract, part philosophical argument, part poetic declamation. (Ulysses is perhaps most explicit about this multiplicity of aims.) A novel brings knowledge, power, clarity and intensity to the reader in whatever combination the author chooses.

This idea occurred to me when I recently reread Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers", the introduction to Lectures on Literature. "It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science" (p. 6, my emphasis). Now, Nabokov probably meant that partly ironically. He was playing with our expectations: Isn't science the precise thing? Isn't poetry intuitive? But he's actually being perfectly orthodox here at the Pangrammaticon, where we might add "the precision of philosophy and the institution of politics". Intuition is the medium of the immediacy of knowledge, institution is the medium of the immediacy of power. Intensity is poetic precision. Clarity is philosophical precision.

The novelist's problem is not neatly set up by the terms of any particular "language art". Like the poet and philosopher, the novelist will sometimes use descriptions and prescriptions merely for the reader to imagine. Sometimes the descriptions will be there to be believed or understood, and sometimes the prescriptions will be there to be desired or obeyed.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Comparative Biography

Here are two interesting facts. Søren Kierkegaard was born in 1813, the year the Danish state went bankrupt, the year that, as he wrily remarked, "so many other worthless notes were put in circulation."

I was born in 1971, the year Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard.

Under the Axe of Apollo

Auden's distinction between a Hermetic and an Apollonian ethos is, of course, reminiscent of Nietzsche's distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. I just remembered two other important mentions of Apollo to a similar end. First, there is Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius":

Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue their
Martian generalities,
We have kept our erasers in order.
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations,
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?

Mars (Roman god of war) here lines up nicely with Auden's Ares (Greek god of war). And Auden's description of "Apollo's children", who "never shrink/From boring jobs but have to think/Their work important" resonates well with Pound's "out-weariers of Apollo". While Propertius has kept his erasers clean, Auden's Apollonians never run out of words and now

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

Pound's use of Apollo as a foil predates Audens. Beckett's, however, comes after Auden, and indicates, I think, something of a decline (from Pound to Auden to Beckett) and therefore a kind of victory for Apollo. I would correlate this with the rise of social science and the marginalization or margarinization of art. Here's what Beckett says in a 1956 interview with Israel Shenker:

The kind of work I do is one in which I'm not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working with impotence, ignorance. ... I think anyone nowadays who pays the slightest attention to his own experience finds it the experience of a non-knower, a non-can-er (somebody who cannot). The other type of artist — the Apollonian — is absolutely foreign to me.

This, not incidentally, is quoted by Norman Mailer in his "Public Notice on Waiting for Godot". Mailer did not see himself either as Auden's Hermetic artist or Beckett's impotent one. But he did acknowledge the importance of Beckett's artistic vision of impotence and hopelessnes. In the late 1950s, Mailer had more hope, but social science was also much weaker, though not nearly as weak as in 1926, when Wyndham Lewis confindently predicted that the "alternative" of (not to) fascism would rid Italy of "all the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy" (TAoBR, p. 322), which, again, Auden's Apollonian intellectuals would "commit" as well.

Perhaps today's Gaetano Salveminies will have to write books called Under the Axe of Apollo?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Big World

This is not the most important pop album that was made in 1986, but it may well be the best. More later on why I think so. It's the 25th anniversary of all things 1986, by the way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Poem By Any Other Name

I gave my love a plastic rose, "a flower
that will never wilt," I said. "You fool," she said.
"You haven't given me a flower."

I gave my love a presséd rose. "It's color
will not fade," I said. "Nice try," she said.
"A stuffed dog would have such power."

So I gave my love a fresh-cut rose. Years later,
when I asked her why she left, she said:
"You did not give another."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Under the Lyre of Hermes

This piece by Adam Kirsch is a very clear statement of the reading of Auden's "Under Which Lyre" that has motivated me to postpone (again) my return to academe. I have recently come dangerously close, I fear, to "committing a social science".

It is my firm belief that social science competes with poetry for our understanding of ourselves. Science has been trying to stabilize our subjective positions with a vast array of objective relations, which a good poem always liberates us from. ("The human brain," said Cyril Connolly, "once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow" [TUG, p. xvi].) Since the second world war, however, social science has been winning, and poetry has been pushed to the margins. The lyrical subject has suffered terribly under the lyre of Apollo.

Other than not committing such a science, at this moment I must admit that I don't quite know what to do about it. So I suppose I'll just have to live beyond my means, eschew plain water and raw greens, choose the odd chances over the even ones, "read The New Yorker, trust in God; and take short views." My fidelity, now that I think about it, to Auden's decalogue is actually quite remarkable.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Art of Being Ruled

(Credit for the title of course goes to Wyndham Lewis.)

We seek knowledge in order to foster understanding. We seek power in order to foster obedience. One might in both cases say that our aim is to improve our understanding and our obedience. By this I don't mean the understanding and obedience of others alone, though that may certainly figure into it. I mean that we hope to better understand our world and that we hope better to obey our history.

This is the real lesson of Confucius's "don't disobey" in re filial piety, i.e., the respect for parents and ancestors that lies at the foundation of social order. We are willy-nilly obedient to somebody (you gotta serve somebody) and there is always something that we understand. Our knowledge and our power supports our efforts to improve that understanding and obedience, which then in turn better guides our quest for more knowledge, more power.

Maybe my aesthetic bias is to blame, but I believe that the ultimate goal here is to have more precise experiences. Nabokov called it "aesthetic bliss"; Aristotle called it "happiness". The point of today's reflections is not to underestimate the importance of precision in our obedience if our aim is to be happy.

Monday, June 13, 2011


One of the wonderful things about pangrammatical homology is its ability to extract one wisdom out of another by an almost deductive method. In Pound's translation of the Analects we find the following: "Mang-I-tze asked about filiality. He said: Don't disobey" (II, v. 1). Filiality, or what is also called filial piety, is of course the affection that is ideally felt between parents and children. It is, I think probably rightly, seen as essential to any broader social bond.

Now, obedience is the poetic homologue of understanding in philosophy.

Our question is simply: what is to understanding as filiality is to obedience? In thinking about this just now, it occured to me to keep another homology in mind: causation is to knowledge what morality is to power. This means we're looking for something that is to causation what feliality is to morality. Well, feliality is the root of morality, it is more fundamental and more subtle form of morality, far less categorical, if also far more robust. What is this subtler root form of causation: relativity. So we have:


This may also be why a concept is a category of thought while an emotion is a disposition to feel. The disposition is rooted in filial piety, while the category is grounded in our relative ________. See? It never ends. What is to knowledge as piety is to power?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cf. The Contender

"See, it really wasn't any of your business. And it still isn't."

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Cf. Thebes ca. 1250 B.C.

In his coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign, Norman Mailer compared Bill Clinton to Ramses II, who

at the climax of the year's largest religious festival in Thebes circa 1250 B.C., lifted his short white robe to reveal to 300,000 Egyptians a mighty phallus. It was erect. Ramses is probably the star of all time. Those 300,000 souls cheered. Their pharaoh was mighty; Egypt would prosper.

We are civilized, even corporatized, but our enthusiasm may still go back to that root. ("How the Pharaoh Beat Bogey", George, January 1997, reprinted in The Time of Our Time, p. 1166)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

From the Ta Hsio

"...they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]." (Confucius' Great Digest, §4, trans. Ezra Pound.)

Monday, June 06, 2011


The aim of the artist is always precision. One strives for a precision of word and gesture, grasp and motion. One strives to perceive and to engage with one's surroundings as precisely as possible, always more precisely than the last encounter, always learning from each encounter a precision that one can take into the next.

In that sense, of course, art is merely a model for life. A life should be spent honing ones perceptions and actions towards an ever more accurate receptivity to and capacity for experience.

There is, no doubt, a phase of natural development where greater precision is achieved willy-nilly as the body grows. And there is, perhaps, a period where precision is lost regardless of one's efforts. But I'm thinking of the, let's say, "normal adult", who struggles with the vagueries of a particular age against the loss of vision and tension.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Dasein and Duende

Lorca said: "Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’"

Dasein is the pangrammatical homologue of duende. Can we hit on a definition? Yes we can: A mysterious being that thinks everything and no poet has exposed.

Necessity and Contingency

The poet extricates emotion from its history, makes it present to us. The poet is "abnormally fond of the precision which creates movement" (Cummings). We call this precision "intensity".

Philosophical precision, by contrast, brings clarity. It is not wholly wrong to say that the philosopher is abnormally fond of the precision which arrests movement, but it would be more charitable to speak of a precision that "apprehends". The images of fluid experience are stabilized, but not for the sake of stability. Once is merely trying to get a clear view of them. One is not denying or opposing movement, one is dealing with it as a particular kind of problem.

I sometimes say the philosopher thereby extricates the concept from the world. But I am no longer so sure. The poet truly "liberates" desire from the policies it is implicated in. But it may be more accurate to say that the philosopher is looking for the limit of belief. So it would also be more accurate, perhaps, to say that the philospher implicates the concept in the world, just as the poet extricates the emotion from history.

In this way, the poet is always indicating the contingency of what we feel. Our emotions are the contingencies of feeling. The philosopher, meanwhile, is trying to present the necessity of what we think. Concepts are the necessities of thinking.

All of this is, of course, bringing me increasingly around to the idea, which readers of this blog of suggested on several occasions, that there is no such thing as a "poet" and a "philosopher" in the senses that my distinction implies. Rather, the difference between a poet and a philosopher is a question of emphasis.