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“Quick as a shot through the brain”: Notes on Kipling’s “Lichtenberg”

April 17, 2014
From Murray's History.

From P. L. Murray’s “Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

During the Anglo-Boer War (also called the Second Boer War), New South Wales, Australia, sent five contingents of soldiers to fight with the British in South Africa, and in the Boer-controlled South African Republic (informally known as the Transvaal Republic, or, at the time, simply as the Transvaal). They saw action from 1900-1902 (though the first departed Australia on October 9, 1899). In his Official Record of Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa (A. J. Mullett, Government Printer: Melbourne, 1911), Lieutenant Colonel P. L. Murray explains, in a chapter on The New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, that these contingents were “raised in response to an invitation from the British Government, which (the second phase of the war having commenced) now asked the Colonies for hardy bushmen—men who could ride, shoot, and find their way about—in order to fight the Boers with their own weapons” (the Boer having resorted to irregular, guerrilla combat). Murray has this to say, by way of preface to the section of his book devoted to New South Wales:

The first Contingents embarked were in reality drafts from the three New South Wales mounted regiments; the company of infantry was enrolled entirely from selected men of the Militia and Volunteer Battalions. These were, therefore, a superior class of individuals, from whom considerable was to be expected; and there was little trouble in getting them away. “A” Battery R.A.A. was, of course, under strict discipline; and the same may be said of the Army Medical Corps. But much rougher material had to be dealt with in the Bushmen’s and subsequent Contingents; though, of course, they ultimately became leavened with a proportion of men who had been to the war and gained valuable experience. Many of the recruits, however—a large majority in some cases—were mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like, who had never soldiered before, and had everything to learn in the way of drill and discipline.

It is from men like these latter (“mere rough bushmen, countrymen, handicraftsmen, farm labourers, and the like”) that the solider who figures in Rudyard Kipling’s “Lichtenberg” was drawn. Or so we are to imagine him, in any case: a farmer who kept a vineyard in the Hunter River Valley in New South Wales, now celebrated for its wine, the major production of which began at about the time the NSW Bushmen were sent to fight the Boer in South Africa.

Lichtenburg (as it’s usually spelled) was a small market-town in the Transvaal, when it was established in 1873 (it is now in the North West Province of South Africa). General de la Ray, the Boer commander in the region during the war of 1899-1902, was associated with the town and is buried there. A diamond rush dating to the 1920s altered the town, overtaking it for nearly a decade. But when the NSW Bushmen (and their successor contingents) fought in and around Lichtenberg (as Kipling spells it in the poem), the town had been shorn of its trees by General de la Ray, to make it easier to defend, and it passed from Boer to British control more than once. The NSW Bushmen, as Murray indicates, took part in the re-occupation of the town on September 28, 1900 (five firefights with the Boer, with one Australian killed on the 29th), fought near it in February 1900 (losing another soldier), and then again in the relief of it on March 7, 1901 (the NSW Bushmen remained in the vicinity through April, on the 10th of which they lost yet another soldier). For all of which reasons the town is properly described, in “Lichtenberg,” as wide open (emptied of residents, stripped of shade trees) and un-supplied (the “sold-out shops,” owned by Boer merchants, could hardly expect British-controlled trains to stock their shelves). In short, Lichtenberg was a war-time town, exactly as given us in the poem, which Kipling placed in “Service Songs,” a sequence of sixteen poems that close his 1903 volume The Five Nationsthe title of which commends, in a Kiplingesque way, the ties that bound England to its four major (largely “white”) colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony, South Africa.

As for “nations”: it should be noted that, even as the Anglo-Boer War proceeded, Australia moved towards union, which was achieved on New Year’s Day 1901, when the new Federal Constitution went into effect, making a Commonwealth of what had been a group of colonies scattered across a continent. So, although the soldier in “Lichtenberg” calls up memories highly specific to New South Wales and the Hunter River Valley, the exclamation, “Ah, Christ! My country again!,” was assuming (perhaps) a new, and broader resonance in Australia. What role Australian soldiers’ experiences in the Anglo-Boer War played  in consolidating a sense of nationalism, I’m not qualified to say, except insofar as partisans of Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton are concerned. Kipling was altogether on the side of British Imperial solidarity, and such poems as “Lichtenberg” (an act of Australian ventriloquism on his part) are hardly incompatible with that; in fact, I should think they’re necessary to it. I haven’t the time to look into the matter, but it would be instructive to see how Kipling’s writings on Australian military service in the Anglo-Boer War were received in Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Or are received now. I’ll leave that to my Australian friends Justin, Mark, John, and Adam (aka “The Pirate”), who’ll know who they are if they read this.


(New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’ nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down—
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody’s baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg—
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me—
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I’d kissed:
All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows!
(As He knows I’ll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget—
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

Fitting that a poem concerned with memory should have a refrain, rung in here with subtle variations in the last two lines of each stanza. Fitting also that a poem concerning not memory only but also a singularly affecting kind of nostalgia should have, as an organizing principle, or motive, that most familiar, and oldest, of stanzas—the English ballad stanza, sometimes called “hymn meter” (because so many hymns are composed in it): four-line runs of verse, alternating, in stress, 4/3/4/3, sometimes rhyming A-B-A-B, as in the first four lines of each stanza here, sometimes x-A-x-A, as in the last four lines of each stanza. These are the patterns earliest learned and most enduringly available to the ear of anyone native to an English-speaking, Christian country. They’re demotic, so to speak, and as fully vernacular as are so many turns of phrase in the poem, which differ in no respect from ordinary speech (“some silly fire on the flank,” “somebody’s baggage-train,” “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / As he knows I’ll do it again,” “bunged up,” and so on).

Kipling’s tact is to make so keenly felt, against these easy patterns and phrasings, those moments when the soldier’s voice takes on its peculiar and affecting note (“the small wet drizzling down,” “It was all Australia to me,” “Every face I was crazy to see,” “my new vines joining hands”). Mary Hamer suggests, rightly I think, that with “the small wet drizzling down” the poem recalls, or remembers, that oldest and most immediately moving poem of nostalgia in English (in, of course, the ballad stanza):

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

The “wattle” referred to in the refrain is a flowering plant (of the mimosa family), indigenous to New South Wales. The smokeless explosive cordite—through the stink of which the solider gets his whiff of the wattle—was developed and produced in the UK; it replaced gunpowder in the .303 cartridges used, by the infantry, from 1891 to 1915. So much for the details. What chiefly marks the poem are such touches as follow.

“There was some silly fire on the flank”: the word “silly” has had (as the OED shows) a strange career in English, meaning (sometimes during the same epoch) quite diverse and incompatible things. In the 15th and 16th centuries it meant, or could mean, “worthy, good, pious, holy.” By the 17th century it also meant “auspicious, fortunate.” The word has also been applied, since the 15th century, to defenseless creatures (in particular those who suffer undeservedly), a hint of which sense has been retained, somewhat altered, in contemporary uses of the word “silly” as a term of endearment. All the while, in the 16th and 17th centuries, “silly” also came to mean (when applied to persons) “weak, frail,” and (when applied to things) “trifling, of little significance.” The last sense operates here. This soldier may have once been (as were the men brought into the NSW Bushmen) without any military training or service. But by now he’s been in enough skirmishes to have forgotten a hundred of them, and no doubt he’s simply observed the fire off to the flank, and assessed it with the ready judgment veterans of combat acquire: in a trice they decide whether a fire, or the sound of a shell, or some smoke on the horizon, is or isn’t a threat that needs tending to; this fire off to the flank (it seems) is a trifle, not worth a second glance, let alone a soldier’s apprehension. The colloquial phrasing as much as the word “silly” dismisses it—has done with it.

That the solider speaks of himself as doing escort duty to “somebody’s baggage-train” hits the right note. Is the train to supply British forces, Canadian forces, forces from Cape Colony? The fact matters about as much as that silly fire on the flank matters, which is as it should be; you get, here, the war-weariness wherein not a thought is expended on things an infantryman (say) doesn’t need (or often wish) to know. All he knows, and needs to know, is that it isn’t supplying his own contingent. Lightly registered here is a slight disaffection with, or disregard for, the larger machinations governing the battlefield—a disposition of long-standing amongst enlisted men in modern armies. He’s good at what he does, our man; he can tell a silly fire from a serious one, passing into a town bedevilled by un-uniformed guerrillas conducting “irregular” warfare. But as for the disposition of troops and trains, well, what’s that to a man who only wants to live to hear, again, a brass band in Sydney? He can be of two minds, of two places—that smell of a wattle’s compelled him so to be: he’s in the Transvaal, but also by the Hunter River in New South Wales. “Crazy” catches the sheer vehemence of his nostalgia, and the lines “All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows! / (As He knows I’ll do it again)” catch his ingratiating, and happily ironic, way of taking himself.

But most remarkable is what lies at the heart of the fourth stanza:

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain—
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

“My new vines joining hands”: here is a case where the tenderness a man feels for the work he does, the land he works, the vineyards he keeps, gives rise to the language he uses to speak of them all. The phrase “joining hands” is partly literal (this is more or less how vines grow on, and through, trellises, etc.), but chiefly figurative, sounding notes at once fraternal, affectionate, pious, or anyway reverential, as when a man, in this case a vintner, might join his own hands (spes alit agricolam). Adding force to the latter ideas is (perhaps) the scriptural resonance of talk about vines and vineyards (terms that occur hundreds of times in the English Bible).

That these ideas, these memories, this rendition from the Hunter River Valley, and in fact from “all Australia,” should “[come] over him in one act” is as correct psychologically (that is how olfactory memory works) as it is disquieting, when the coming over, when the act, is “quick as a shot to the brain,” whether from the cordite in a .303 cartridge, or from a Boer sniper wearing British kahki: the wattle and the memories it brings out simply slay this soldier from the New South Wales Contingent. And so it happens that out of a hundred skirmishes, and the forgetting of them, only one is lodged so deeply in memory by the scent of a wayside flower.

With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

 The scene evoked so obliquely is no doubt chaotic, aggravated by “bunged up” rifle sights, such that those .303 shells are hard (or impossible) to get off to good effect in a firefight not at all “silly” (the stink and the crack of the gunshots tell us how things now are, in or near that market-town coveted by the Boer commander de la Ray); and the eyes that would sight the rifle are “bunged up” not with rain but with “wet,” as likely from welled up tears as from whatever’s “drizzling down.” But set against the chaotic manoeuvres, and the incapacity rightly to see anything immediate, are those scenes realized in memory, and occasioned by a scent, with such uncanny precision: the brass bands, the picnics, Sydney, and a “little homestead on Hunter River.” In short, the soldier’s country again—where the word involves two incompatible ideas: delight in the memory, and frustration that it should come here, now, exactly where and when it’s as likely to cause pain as give relief.

In closing, I’ll add that Ralph Durand, in his Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914), relays the following anecdote:

Some time after the war a group of men in a New Zealand club were discussing Rudyard Kipling’s accuracy. One man referred to this poem, and declared positively that there was no wattle in Lichtenberg. An argument followed, and the point was referred to a man present, an Australian, who had been to Lichtenberg. The Australian declared the first speaker to be wrong. He said that on a rainy day in Lichtenberg he had smelt wattle though he could not at first see any. Later, when opportunity offered, he had searched for it and found one small wattle-bush in full flower.

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The Rudyard Kipling Society maintains a page devoted to “Lichtenberg,” which you’ll find here. As for olfactory memory, you’ll find articles here, here, here, and here. You’ll find a useful site devoted to the Anglo-Boer War here. Finally, for discussion, in these pages, of another poem pertaining to the Anglo-Boer War (by Thomas Hardy), click here.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.

Map showing British colonies and Boer Republics, as disposed at the start of the Second Boer War.


“How is this matter for mirth?”: Kipling’s Open Question

March 4, 2014

Rudyard Kipling first collected “Epitaphs of the War” in his 1919 volume The Years Between. Thirty-one in number, the epitaphs range as widely as “epitaphs” can, in theme, in manner, in tone, and in form. Kipling’s models, as a number of scholars have pointed out, were the epitaphs and epigrams in The Greek Anthology, which Kipling knew in translation (several translations would have been available to him), but perhaps also perused a bit in Greek, using a translation as an aide.

Following is the fifteenth of Kipling’s epitaphs, coming right midway through them:

“The Refined Man”

I was of delicate mind. I stepped aside for my needs,
Disdaining the common office. I was seen from afar and killed. . .
How is this matter for mirth? Let each man be judged by his deeds.
I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Rudyard Kipling, circa 1915

Yes, that’s right. Our refined man couldn’t bear to relieve himself in the latrine, alongside other soldiers and in the general stench, and got shot while taking a dump off to the side somewhere. Here is an English Tommy of a kind not typical (though not entirely without precedent) in Kipling’s poetry. And what a foul exposure he suffers. We may assume that it is, in fact, an  infantryman with whom we here meet (as he met his end). Officers had ways of sparing themselves the worst indignities of the latrine (or the “common office,” a “refined” euphemism for an unrefined site and act). I would note also that our infantryman comes before us in his capacity as a “man,” not as a soldier, one purpose of military training, and one effect of combat, being to reduce the complexities of identity—man, son, father, Northumbrian, Londoner, husband, lover, brother, scholar, tanner, mason, farmer, whatever the case—to something single and indistinct. Here, a soldier simply chooses, again, to distinguish himself (as “refined”) and suffers the consequence. And is immortalized for it in an epitaph unlike any ever written.

But to our refined man’s question: How is this matter for mirth? I consider the question genuine, open, and as asked as much by Kipling as by his refined man (again, he’s not brought before us in his capacity as soldier). Maybe it’s matter for mirth, maybe not. If a man’s willing to hold to his delicacies in the trenches and out of them, though it cost him his life—well, I say fine, good for him. Admirable, even. The trenches were an obscenity anyway; so was the war—an every-hour affront to the privacies of every private in every privy. Violate with unwarranted mirth some other man’s peculiar dignity; ridicule his way of carrying himself, of taking himself, on the only terms he can in that appalling war; make sport, indeed, of his way of bearing our common animal burden (bodies that we are):—bad form; in fact, unrefined. On the other hand, a certain kind of snobbery meets its end. “Disdain” the common office in battle and punishment is usually swift. The platoon that shits together stays together—until it doesn’t. Anyway, camaraderie surely has other bases than such necessities as these. This epitaph is here to suggest as much: Precisely how is this matter for mirth?—because mirth can either make or break camaraderie.

But that rhyme! “Needs”/”deeds”—the need being to take the dump in private that was (in one sense) the deed. Kipling is one of the great rhymers—maybe our greatest. The wit of the rhyme is thematic, as good rhymes often are: here, surely, is matter for mirth—this rhyme. But take the bait—I think the poem quite likely baits us—and you may well find your laughter undermined, confounded, embarrassed; and that by precisely the thing that gave rise to it: this quatrain, this rhyme.

Which is to say, your mirth may draw out of you, quite before you realize it, something unseemly. The poem is at once about an occasion for mirth and also a thing that may or may not occasion mirth. It’s a kind of test, a touchstone: the nature of the amusement a reader derives from it characterizes him (whether in arraignment or commendation). Here, if ever there was one, we have a quatrain fit for consideration in light of “reader-response” theory; one might call it (and all Kipling’s epitaphs) a contribution to reader-response theory. Mind how people speak of these poems, and you’ll learn much. This quatrain is toilet humour of a very high order, such that it attains, I’d suggest, to real pathos (rising up well out of bathos).

To put it all another way, Kipling sets up an occasion for mirth and also forestalls it, giving us (and himself) pause. Reader, are you laughing? Look to your mirth. We are in a graveyard; this is an epitaph. And not just any graveyard: one for residence in which you must have worn the uniform and taken a bullet. Kipling never laughed at his English Tommy, nor at dead soldiers generally. Think through the matter well, before concluding that Kipling mocks this man and his refinement, though the man’s fellow soldiers may have, and though the (presumably) German soldier who shot him almost surely did (though, for all that, the indignities of the common office know no nationality).

However that may be, matter for bleakest mirth is the thing we mustn’t, again, forget: we are reading an epitaph, an unsweet remembrancer, about a deed we must all daily do and not be killed while at it.

Imagine reading this epitaph not in a book (where it exists) but at, say, Arlington National Cemetery, or some other such place where epitaphs of the kind Kipling left us don’t exist, the point being, there, properly to lodge soldiers in their common office for common homage; but where, if epitaphs were written with sardonic esprit de corps, they would surely be marked by the genius of the soldiers who’ve given America (and England) such a rich and bitter store of idiom and joke (one of the great records of which is Kipling’s own poetry, from Barrack Room Ballads  and Departmental Ditties on through the “epitaphs” under discussion here).

And finally, how many wars have shown the governments that wage them for what they are—a bathroom stall? Let Rudyard Kipling (or the soldiers logged in Generation Kill) say. Donald Rumsfeld never will.

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For more on Kipling’s “Epitaphs,” see this page, maintained by the Kipling Society. Note also that Kipling played a signal role in the early history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (instituted by royal charter in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission).

The Left Hand of Ogden Nash

December 7, 2013
Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

In 2012, Frederick Seidel published his thirteenth volume of new verse, Nice Weather. Readers familiar with the blurbs that happily disgrace the back covers of his books will know that Seidel is, or is said to be, a poet who enjoys cutting a mean figure. David Orr, writing in the New York Times, had this to say of Seidel’s Poems: 1959-2009 (echoing Robert Frost at the outset):

Many poets have been acquainted with the night; some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them… Frederick Seidel has spent the last half-century being that darkest and strangest sort of poet. He is, it’s widely agreed, one of poetry’s few truly scary characters. This is a reputation of which he’s plainly aware and by which he’s obviously amused, at least to judge from the nervy title of his 2006 book, Ooga-Booga. This perception also colors the praise his collections typically receive — to pick one example from many, Calvin Bedient admiringly describes him as “the most frightening American poet ever,” which is a bit like calling someone “history’s most bloodthirsty clockmaker.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been frightened by a poet or a poem. Certain phrases in “Christabel” give me the shivers (not unpleasantly), though I haven’t read it in twenty years. There’s always E. A. Robinson‘s miller and what he said. Hardy, too, could certainly do it up right.

“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

This merely states the facts, and the rhyme in the second couplet is perfect in its disgust.

But whatever the case, I’d rather Seidel’s reviewers set “scary” and “frightening” in scare quotes. An occult belief that poetry is considerably more consequential than it actually is underwrites their claims. It’s exhilarating to hitch your wagon to a dark star. Lionel Trilling could only respect Frost by making him out a terror. “Read the poem called ‘Design,’” said Trilling at the poet’s 85th birthday dinner, “and see if you sleep any better for it. Read ‘Neither Out Far Nor in Deep,’ which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived.” Emptiness (abstract)? Well, what else is there (abstract)? If Trilling’s honest, and not merely rising to the occasion, I must say that he’s pretty easily spooked. I’d hate to sit next to him for Macbeth.

Elsewhere the New York Times designates Seidel the “[poet] laureate of the louche,” which is perhaps more to the point. In the New York Review of BooksDan Chiasson calls him “a ruthless poet, almost gleefully deficient in empathy. Empathy, after all, requires more than one second of attention.” “Ruthless”? Fair game, I suppose, in the poetry business. But shall we fetch in language from psychiatry to say the same thing in other terms? How does Chiasson know Seidel is “deficient in empathy” and pleased with the fact? The implication is that the poet, on the evidence of the poetry, is well nigh sociopathic (Zero-Negative personality): the traffic between attributes here ascribed to the writing, and to the writer, is hard to assess. The same goes for this: “[Seidel’s] is therefore not an unsympathetic art: it is, rather, an art of deliberately refused sympathy. This is a large difference. Because Seidel runs his imagination through only one channel, the id, being nasty, impolite, rude, and so on sustains him” (emphasis mine). Speak advisedly. “Sustains” him as a poet, as a man, or as both? And in what sense sustain? Well: sustenance, nourishment. Better the “heartbreaking” catalogs of Walt Whitman, Dan Chiasson suggests, seeing as how they “stand in for Whitman’s paradoxical wish to do justice to the total fabric of life while honoring each individual strand.” Justice and honor, on the one hand, injustice and dishonor on the other. Chisasson doesn’t put it that way, but he might as well have; every shot has its negative. And then he adds:

Seidel’s gamble is that the world can be understood entirely through the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates and feels. Other moods do exist in his poems—the pleasures of sex and motorcycles, the thrill of gossip, horror (never sympathy, exactly) at what becomes of people, the garden-variety I’m-getting-old melancholy of a person in his sixties. But all of them are made to shimmy uncomfortably into the narrow serpent’s body of contempt… Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Any other relation to suffering sentimentalizes the pain. Seidel’s is an aesthetics that avoids aestheticizing human grief, sometimes in favor of aestheticizing human meanness.

Note, again, how difficult it is to distinguish things said of the poetry from things said of, or implied about, the poet, and also the man. You can not tell and yet it seems as if Chiasson—and others who say such things about Seidel—really believe they’re talking about a person. Is Seidel “gambling,” or is Seidel the poet gambling, and if either is, what are the stakes for a loss? That the heir to a coal mining fortune’s investment in schadenfreude won’t pay off, that the optative mood will carry the day, that the Arab Spring will all work out, that we’ll take back the House in 2014, and that 15,000 U.S. troops won’t be in Afghanistan until 2024? Or if Seidel the poet is gambling, will a loss mean he won’t get read, and have no recourse but to find some other means to “stimulate” in others the “contempt” he himself (we are given to assume) feels? Actually, nothing much is at stake, so long as Seidel doesn’t run for mayor.

Still: Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Forgive me for taking this as an inadvertent defense of something like gentility; I’ll be as extravagant in my position as Chiasson is in his (for the nonce), when he states outright that he knows what “calculations” Seidel has made. Two other vagaries merit notice: the way “brutal” and “postmodern” unstably consort, and that a claim is being made, in Seidel’s poetry, not only for a certain “moral position,” but for its singular prestige.

In any case, cynicism—if that really is what’s on offer—is hardly “postmodern.” We’ve had Rochester‘s Satyr Against Reason and Mankind in hand since 1675, Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs du Mal since 1857, Rimbaud‘s Une Saison en Enfer since 1873, and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals since 1887—to name but four. Seidel is of that shifty company. To speak, as Chiasson does, of an aesthetics that aesthecizes is tautological, or courts tautology. No, not exactly: having an “aesthetic” is fine; “aestheticizing” anything, whether grief or meanness, is decadent, a shade parasitic, echt fin de siècle (if I may straddle the Rhine). Terms of art and terms of abuse mingle a bit too freely in Chiasson’s review, one unspoken (Whitmanesque) implication of which is that American poets appear to have a certain unspecified civic responsibility (“empathy” in operation, even if only in potentia). The most telling moment in the review comes when Chiasson speaks of Seidel’s upbringing (and of his family’s “parlor”: invidious word):

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. . . Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain.

One certainly can speak of commodity fetishism in the poetry Frederick Seidel, which (as Chiasson rightly hints) often takes that theme for its tonic note. We might even say that, in Seidel’s poetry, fetishism per se stands in for commodity fetishism proper, whereby “definite social relations” between men (as Marx says) assume, in their eyes, “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Good to have that front and center. But is there some intimation in what Chiasson says that Seidel is a canny 1-percenter, aware of the relation between luxury objects and human pain, surpassingly deft at registering it, but blithely indisposed to do anything about it other than write in contempt tout court—to write in such a way as “gleefully” to “stimulate” “contempt”? The tools to those that can use them.

In The Nation, Ange Mlinko calls Seidel’s “the prosody of atrocity,” another way of saying he “aestheticizes human meanness.” In the Boston Review, Calvin Bedient, whom Orr quotes, issued this warning in 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers fell. He might as well be writing of Rochester:

Hide your lyricals, your tenders: Frederick Seidel is coming. Ogre to what used to be called (without a sneer) sentiment, grim beyond Gothic contrivance, the most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.) Which is his brilliance, his grief.

Not so much scandal proper, I should think, as an “air of scandal” hangs about Seidel’s writing. I suppose this is one thing Dan Chiasson has in mind in speaking of “the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates,” though the idea that “contempt” can be “stimulated” strikes me as behaviouristic; and the implication that Seidel is, yes, something of a sadist strikes me as unwarranted, at least on the evidence of the poetry. Are we really to suppose he writes from such motives as these?—to fetch in “glee” by inducing contempt, and all on a gamble that this is the way properly to “understand,” and entirely, something as inchoate as “the world”? How would Chiasson know that Seidel harbored any such ambition, other than by working from a curious assumption (once you look at it) that poets simply must try to “understand the world”? I’m not sure whose responsibility it is to understand the world. The State Department has that brief, with what results we know. Let the world understand itself. As Schopenhauer says:

[If] we desire to know what men, morally considered, are worth as a whole and in general, we have only to consider their fate as a whole and in general. This is want, wretchedness, affliction, misery, and death. Eternal justice reigns; if they were not, as a whole, worthless, their fate, as a whole, would not be so sad. In this sense we may say, the world itself is the judgment of the world. If we could lay all the misery of the world in one scale of the balance, and all the guilt of the world in the other, the needle would certainly point to the centre.

Whatever the case, reviewers seem to believe that Seidel’s poetry compels them to discuss such things as I’ve just surveyed. And Dan Chiasson’s review—which I commend altogether as far more than a curiosity: one could do much worse by way of introduction to Seidel—certainly has its merits, chief among them being that it makes me (I’m surely not alone in this) want to read more of Seidel. Read more…

“This world is nothing except it tend to another”: Herbert’s “Vertue” (and a parting glance at Nietzsche)

November 30, 2013
Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

Portrait of George Herbert, by Robert White in 1674. From National Portrait Gallery (UK).

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12: 19-20

With that sweet, charitable, Pauline sentiment, let us begin. And though I shall do my best in what follows to read George Herbert’s “Vertue” as well as I can, candour constrains me to say, at the outset, that I mean a good deal of it to be irreverent, if only for purposes of trial (in fact, I love reading Herbert). Like Al Pacino, I will play the Devil’s advocate, which in this case means the world’s advocate. And I will hold that a certain strain of ressentiment, such as sorts well with the book of Romans, runs through all of Herbert’s ascetic enterprises.

I’ve taught “Vertue” often enough to find about it, now, in the old anthologies I use in classrooms, a palimpsest of notes in pencil and in varying colours of ink. The poem takes its place, of course, in George Herbert’s The Temple, published the year he died, in 1633. Last week I happened to read the poem again, after a lapse of some years, and it struck me anew, or for the first time really, just how world-hating a thing it is—I mean, if we take it unalloyed.

By way of preface to the poem, we do well to recall Herbert’s celebrated letter to his mother, Magdalene Herbert, written while he was a student at Cambridge, and wherein he chastens his avocation as poet, as he would later his vocation as a priest. Herbert was seventeen at the time. Here is Izaak Walton‘s account of the letter, which enclosed a poem for his mother’s delectation:

And in Cambridge we may find our George Herbert’s behaviour to be such, that we may conclude, he consecrated the first-fruits of his early age to virtue, and a serious study of learning. And that he did so, this following letter and sonnet, which were in the first year of his going to Cambridge sent his dear mother for a new-year’s gift, may appear to be some testimony. ‘But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs, by which scholars say, the muses use to take up their habitations. However I need not their help, to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ, that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning (dear mother) is in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory; and I beg you to receive this as one testimony.’

As given in "The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert" (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652).

As given in “The Remains of that Sweet Singer of the Temple, George Herbert” (1841 Pickering edition, with new material, of a volume originally issued in 1652). Click on the image to enlarge it.

The accompanying poem goes as follows:

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not sonnets made of thee? and lays
Upon thine altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fewel choose
Than that, which one day worms may chance refuse?

The poetry Herbert would write, while parish priest at Bemerton and before getting there, would certainly be “consecrated to virtue,” as Walton indicates. And he would, in “Vertue,” transfigure the metaphors in the poem just quoted—having to do with martyrdom by fire, consumption by fire, burnt offerings, and so on—to speak (quite happily, I think) of a day when “the whole world turn to coal” (that is, to cinders). Two “fewels” are on offer to poet, and to men and women, wherewith they might set themselves aflame: one issues from Venus, the heat of sexual desire, the other issues from God, the purifying fire of devotion, even to the point of martyrdom, whereby poet and penitent alike may joyfully offer themselves as “burnt offerings” on the altar of the Lord. And as the scripture tells us, He loves burnt offerings. Exodus 10: 25: “And Moses said, Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.” What William Empson once called “the miraculous corpse worm” of the Elizabethan imagination, is also brought out here, of course (memento mori, as so often with Herbert). Wear the livery of Venus (a sign of enlistment in service to that pagan Goddess of Love), and you shall burn with a fire such that even a worm may not deign to consume what’s left of you.

On the other, and right, hand sits the Dove (associated with the Holy Spirit, the third person of God). “Imp” your wing on those of the Dove, not of Cupid, and you shall be redeemed, just as Herbert says in “Easter Wings” (where “imp” means graft, but has more particularly to do with falconry, as per the OED: “To engraft feathers in the wing of a bird, so as to make good losses or deficiencies, and thus restore or improve the powers of flight; hence, allusively, with reference to ‘taking higher flights’, enlarging one’s powers, and the like”). Herbert, of course, took the latter way, and was named rector of Bemerton (near Salisbury, Wiltshire) in 1630, the year after his marriage to his cousin Jane Danvers, “a loving and vertuous lady” (Walton), or “a handsome bona roba and ingeniose” (Barnabas Oley), or perhaps all three (voluptuous in physique—a bona roba—virtuous, and ingenious). The couple never bore a child. Walton gives the following account of Herbert’s induction at Bemerton:

When at his induction he was shut into Bemerton Church, being left there alone to toll the bell (as the law requires him), he staid so much longer than an ordinary time before he returned to those friends that staid expecting him at the church door, that his friend Mr. Woodnot looked in at the church-window, and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar: at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnot) he set some rules to himself, for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.

An conspicuously uncommon prostration, the sincerity of which is not in doubt. Herbert was soon fully ordained into the priesthood.

So much by way of introduction to “Vertue,” which has figuratively to do with “bridalls” (weddings, done under the livery, let’s fancifully say, of Venus); the sensual, seductive things of this world as against that other, super-sensual world; and the consummation of all in fire (“coal” means, in this poem, again as per the OED, not fuel for fires yet to begin but “the result or residue of combustion; cinders; ashes; charred remains”). Here is the poem, in its old spelling (for the most part):

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
——————–For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
——————–And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
——————–And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
——————–Then chiefly lives.

“Sweet” chiefly works here by bringing to mind its negation. OED sense 3.a for “sweet”: “not corrupt, putrid, sour, or stale.” The idea in “Vertue” is that nothing “sweet” possesses any real integrity or property of enduring value; “sweetness” is apparent, not real. All things sweet (to the senses) are best understood as imperfect stays against corruption, or else as corruption incipient: touch them not. We mustn’t—no, not by any means—savour the sweetness of the day, or of the rose, or of the spring—as will soon become clear, rash gazers upon this weblog.

“Bridall” means “wedding” (the event proper, that is): the marriage of “the earth and skie,” on this very day (“so cool, so calm, so bright”). What follows the night after a wedding we know (at least in 17th century literary contexts unaffiliated with Rochester): not merely the consummation of the marriage, but the loss of chastity. “Vertue” puts us in such a frame of mind as to regret this should happen, in fact in such a frame of mind as to “weep” for it, as does the day itself when it (inevitably) “falls” to “dew” (a thing organically, naturally, generated by the “marriage” of earth and sky, as any close observer of the weather knows: Herbert avails himself of a natural fact to make a spiritual one, about which more below). Here, night-fall is given a slightly lapsarian air; what followed on Eden follows here (mortality and sin, and, moreover, sin communicated via sexual consummation, whether under “bridall” auspices or other ones). The poem exists to chasten us out of worldly consummations. It’s attitude toward “bridalls” of all kinds (I venture to say) is deeply ambivalent.

I certainly won’t rule out the possibility, in fact the likelihood, that “die,” in that first mortifying injunction (“For thou must die”), means, in addition to “come to an irrevocable end,” what it often meant in the late 16th and early 17th centuries: sexual climax (another sort of dying fall). A fine example occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak of Benedick (3.ii):

Don Pedro. Indeed that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude, he is in love.
Claudio. Nay, but I know who loves him.
Don Pedro. That would I know too, I warrant one that knows him not.
Claudio. Yes, and his ill conditions, and in despite of all, dies for him.
Don Pedro. She shall be buried with her face upwards.

The double meaning, if it works in line four of “Vertue,” would enforce a point: to wit, that sexuality, death and sin are affiliated, as of course they are, both theologically and scripturally (and elsewhere in The Temple).

Read more…

Dexter and Our Predator Drones

November 21, 2013
Dexter and Harrison.

Dexter and Harrison, each born in a “blood-bath,” the second quite literally, as if in a witty twist on an old cliche.

N.B.: What follows assumes a good deal of familiarity with the television series it discusses; it is also quite likely impertinent. Anyhow, if you’ve not seen Dexter, bear in mind that, when three years old, he witnessed his mother’s murder—in a shipping container. The weapon? A chainsaw. The boy (and his older brother) sat in a pool of their mother’s blood for three days, until the police turned up. The first cop on the scene, Harry Morgan, adopted Dexter. As the boy grew up, it became clear that the bloodbath in the shipping container had so traumatized him that he’d been left psychopathic. Harry—in concert, as we now know, with a neurobiologist and student of psychopathy—taught the young Dexter a rigorous “code,” whereby his need to kill would be directed at murderers who had, for one reason or another, escaped “justice.” Dexter would kill only those who had themselves murdered people who did not deserve to die. He followed his father into law enforcement, not as a cop, but as a forensic blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. On the job, and on the sly, he avails himself of the resources of the forensics lab, the evidence room, and criminal databases, to insure that the men and women on his “kill list” are, in fact, guilty as sin—and at large. And then he gets to work, at times misleading the homicide detectives the better to beat the law to the punch. Our Wikipedians offer a detailed overview of Dexter here.

I’ve now seen the first three episodes of the last season of Showtime’s Dexter, wherein, again, we watch, and listen intimately to the beguiling interior monologue of, America’s favorite, family-friendly serial killer, Dexter Morgan, as wonderfully (and athletically) played by Michael C. Hall.

I see what I see in season eight so far, and it is familiar from all the foregoing seasons: a hint of what we get (say) in the movie Just Cause, to the effect that, our “official” American affection for “due process” notwithstanding, we often prefer, and find more deeply satisfying, forms of “justice” delivered outside the juridical system to ones operating entirely within it (especially, it would seem, in Florida).†

America will simply never happily agree to Mirandize itself. The extraordinary popularity of the Dirty Harry films; or of scores of Hollywood movies involving intrepid protagonists (policemen, doctors, “special ops” soldiers, politicians) who bend or break the rules to achieve their ends (imagine a fist-pumping Yes!); or of films involving institutions (whether juridical, medical or political) that must somehow forever be gotten round;—all of these things attest to the fact just stated. The brave new world that America is may flirt with Miranda, may go steady her, may even embark on a prolonged engagement, but it will never marry her. Having watched, as I say, only the first three hours of the last season of Dexter, I must wait to see whether the writers rebuke themselves for having introduced and affirmed this idea, and for having entertained us with it all these years, and then affirm, at the close—as our civil religion requires that we do—the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process. (I write on 21 November 2013, titrating my Dexter via iTunes.)

Actually, Americans hate due process, and yet must always tell themselves that they don’t hate it. Consider our Predator drones: the summa of America’s vexed relation to “justice” and “due process” (“justice”: what a Janus-faced word, as deployed in American speech). Part of America—and “America” is agent in us as an idea—says it hates Predator drones, just as it speaks of the Unimpeachable Virtue of Due Process; and part of America is in undying love with its badass Predator drones. Just so are we in love with our predator nonpareil, Dexter Morgan, an unmanned—by which I mean inhuman, because sociopathic/psychopathic—but totally awesome drone who kills “surgically” but not without collateral damage of the kind Americans (truth be told) are pretty generally willing to take for granted—except when it comes to the American family. The American family (with its values) is that sacrosanct arena which must be protected at any cost, to hell with due process, but which, in Dexter, has been made at once the means whereby it preserves, and also destroys, itself. See, for example, the scene at the close of episode three, season eight, in which Dexter’s sister Deb first attempts to kill both her brother and herself, and then, when a bystander saves her, she just as quickly saves Dexter—whom she has both loved, familially and otherwise, and also hated. Deb, a very good American, especially in the genius of her beautifully crass idiom, just doesn’t know how she feels about her predator drone; twice she’s had the chance to kill her adopted blood brother, and twice she’s stepped back. At the haunted heart of their “family,” be it remembered, is Harry Morgan, deceased, Dexter’s adoptive father, a ghost of a good murder cop who stepped outside the law for (and with) his son, trying to make good for his family and thinking he failed (killed himself, as it happens). Let no good deed go unpunished, and let Dexter avenge all the bad deeds. Evil will bless, and ice will burn. America is on Dexter’s table, looking at pictures of itself, but also unpacking its knives. Time to watch. A guess: if Dexter is rebuked by his writers and fans (who are the same), it will chiefly be for having collaterally damaged his sister, his family.

The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!" (ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The Dexter key chain features the perfect copy of a blood sample that a splatter analyst like Dexter can appreciate. Keep your keys together and show you’re a fan!” (ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

President Obama, we now say on air, maintains a “kill list,” and though that’s no term of art the White House would ever deploy through the talking head of Jay Carney, journalists and their readers and watchers immediately absorb the undue process of the Predator drone program into a highly legible, pop-cultural vocabulary: the (badass) “kill list,” a thing Dexter might maintain and speak of (indeed, he does). This is his language; his is their language; we are that language.

The White House, in fact, refers to its Predator drone program, which is also a video program (we’ve all seen the shots now on YouTube), as Disposition Matrix, a name that might well grace the marquee at your local multiplex, given how readily political/military discourses now mingle with pop-cultural ones in America after twelve years of continuous war. The same might be said for the terms of art White House officials do use in speaking of their showtime program behind closed doors: it involves a “next-generation capture/kill list.” Next-generation: what immortalizing phrase is more familiar, now, than that?

Here’s the blunt style of talk Americans love but often affect to detest:

“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we do.. . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’”

A necessary part of what we do: That’s the straight, realpolitik dope, and America is down with it. As is Dr. Vogel, a character introduced, diabolus ex medica, in season eight of Dexter: she had a hand in making him, in imbuing him with his extrajudicial “code” (the first, echt American tenet of which is: never get caught). And she is here now to tell Dexter that he is both a necessary part of what we do and “perfect” in his ways and means. Yes, sociopathy may be sublimated. Consider Goldman Sachs. And Paul Ryan Ayn Randianism.

Or recall the frisson Dick Cheney seemed not simply to experience, but pleasurably to induce in his TV audience, when, in an appearance on Meet the Press five days after 9/11, he told Tim Russert that, in the Global War of Terror, “we also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” No doubt Cheney could count on, had counted on and anticipated, sly, complicit nods of approval (eyes narrowed) in living rooms all across the nation, where his fellow Americans had gathered that Sunday morning to worship Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and Archer Daniels Midland. Use any means at our disposal; the dark side (if you will); we’ve got to spend time in the shadows; a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion: we might be listening to Dexter Morgan discuss, with the ghost of his father Harry, his “dark passenger,” the name he bestows on his urge to kill—at once his curse and his redemption. Dexter’s ambivalence about it is somehow characteristically American.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Google Ngram for “media event.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

So there’s our political “subtext” for season eight of Dexter. Or, no, better to say: Dexter (seasons one through eight) is a “media event,” a medium, wherein we Americans may readily find the vocabularies we prefer for everything like our extra-judicial, stealthy Predator drone “kills.” It’s all super-clean, like Dexter, sitting in his kitchen on a Smith & Wesson stool, cooled by an air-conditioner stocked with blood. (Google “dexter smith & wesson stool” and you’ll find a site, maintained by the gun manufacturer, inviting you to join the NRA.)

The Predator drone “program,” which we are all watching, because, as I’ve hinted, it generates the kind of video America is surpassingly good at producing, is only the latest and baddest-ass incarnation of off-the-books American might, off-the-books American shock and awe.

If I have any insight to offer out of the hundreds of hours of video and film I’ve watched these past thirty years or so, here it is: America will never really “close Guantanamo,” even if it departs wholesale from Cuba. Because “Guantanamo” is where Dexter Morgan lives and does his “deceptively innocuous” work, “nefarious or otherwise,” and “with the utmost precision,” whether in a South Beach pastel shirt and linen trousers, or in a “kill shirt” (price: $34.95)—beloved. Streaming on Netflix, 24/7. “Guantanamo” is part of our package, always has been.

And yes, Dex, you bet I’m an American fan. What this may mean, I don’t know any better than Deb.

"The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style" (official ad-copy from Showtime's on-line store).

“The kill uniform is deceptively innocuous just like Dexter. Sport this soft olive green Henley just like the Dexter kill shirt on the show, and complete any job nefarious or otherwise with the utmost precision and understated style” (official ad-copy from Showtime’s on-line store).

Read more…

Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell

October 29, 2013

oates-tweetJoyce Carol Oates has just published, in Harpers, a short-story in which Robert Frost figures, monstrously. I will soon write here a detailed account of how the story works, and of how Oates tendentiously distorts the biographical record. She tacks on a coy note at the close of the story to the effect that, although “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” is fiction, it is “based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffery Meyers (1996).” This book is widely acknowledged among scholars of Frost (and of American poetry) as one of the worst biographies ever done on the poet. In her review of it, Helen Vendler condemned the book, suggesting that the sooner it was pulped, the better. Dabbling in it in a “limited, selected” way hardly amounts to “research.” I should hope Oates has some other scholarship in mind besides what’s on offer in Meyers. She ambiguously gives her reader to understand that she does; reading a third-rate biography is not historical inquiry.

Today I will discuss one passage in Oates’ tale. The story is quasi-gothic in genre, tricked out with sly narrative manoeuvres that appear to insulate—in bad faith, I think—its author from the appalling portrait rendered of the poet, which led, in the blogosphere, to such headlines as this: “Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore.” Worth noting in connection with this is a remark Oates made on Twitter in February 2013:

What we know of Robert Frost’s life suggests that a demon had somehow come to inhabit a brilliant poet; or, the reverse.

Anyway, the passage I have in mind illustrates very well Oates’ procedures (which aren’t clever enough to be called demonic); the reader may judge of its integrity.

In the tale, a 30-year old would-be poet (with a strange interest in Frost’s body and also in her own) goes up to Bread Loaf to interview Frost. She is, as we learn a few pages into the story, chimerical, unreal, insubstantial; eventually she evaporates into a third-person narrator who leaves the reader with the curious impression (unstably so) that Frost, in bad conscience, has suffered something like a nightmare while trying to get some “rest” (Oates’ third-person narrator’s term). But during the course of the “interview” that never actually happens, the young woman, now no longer the narrator but the subject, with Frost, of the narration, lodges this charge against Frost, referring to his daughter Irma who, as did Frost’s sister Jeanie, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia:

Why was poor Irma so obsessed with being kidnapped and raped? Forced into prostitution? You were scornful of Irma’s terrors. You’d told her bluntly when she was just a girl that she was so unattractive she needn’t fear being raped, no man would be interested in her sexually, she wasn’t worth “twenty cents a throw.” Later, to Robert Lowell, you said laughingly that Irma Frost couldn’t “make a whorehouse.”

The fictive Frost replies:

That is not true. That is—a lie, slander . . . Lowell was a sick, distressed person. I spoke to him in a way to lift his spirits, to entertain him. He’d thought that he was bad, but old Frost was badder. But none of it was meant to be taken literally.

What is a reader to make of this, a reader, say, unschooled in the long history of scholarship that attends biographical accounts of Frost? The first thing to point out is that the answer to the first two questions here put to Frost is self-evident: paranoid schizophrenia. The second thing is that Oates’ fictive Frost’s rejoinder is, in a certain sense, correct. This is a lie, a slander. But what unwitting readers will not know is that the remark about Irma not being worth twenty cents a throw traces back to Meyers and is very dubiously sourced. Nor will most readers know, unless they are schooled not only in Frost but in Lowell, that Oates has here introduced a surpassingly weird and invidious anachronism.

Had Frost ever laughingly said that Irma “couldn’t make a whorehouse”? Bear the following in mind. Oates’ tale is set in 1951. The only record of Frost’s ever having said such a thing, if it constitutes a record, is a poem Robert Lowell wrote in the late 1960s, the details of which derive (it would appear) from a conversation he recalled having had with Frost in November 1962, the last year Frost saw full to its end in a hospital bed at Peter Bent Brigham in Boston. This is but one of the  anachronisms laid into the tale, and it is typical of Oates’ narrative tricks. Here is Lowell’s poem:

“Robert Frost”

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,
his voice musical, raw and raw—he writes in the flyleaf:
“Robert Lowell from Robert Frost, his friend in the art.”
“Sometimes I feel too full of myself,” I say.
And he, misunderstanding, “When I am low,
I stray away. My son wasn’t your kind. The night
we told him Merrill Moore would come to treat him,
he said, ‘I’ll kill him first.’ One of my daughters thought things,
knew every male she met was out to make her;
the way she dresses, she couldn’t make a whorehouse.”
And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”
And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think
how little good my health did anyone near me.”

Merrill Moore was the psychiatrist Frost consulted, again and again, over two decades (in connection with his son Carol and his daughter Irma). He served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and was a poet himself. Frost wrote a tribute to him when he died. Lowell was also close to Moore and a friend of Frost (who, generally speaking, regarded the younger poet warmly).

Did Frost say what Lowell has him saying? We don’t really know; the poem is a work of art, and far better than anything Oates’ could ever give us on Frost and whatever haunted him. But in the poem the damning phrase is no “laughing” matter. The note Lowell registers, in closing, is one of rueful regret. If there’s humor in it, well, it smacks of the gallows. I’ve seen depression enough to hear that note. God knows Lowell had. “My son wasn’t your kind”: interesting (and artful) that he gets that in of himself from Frost.

Most of Oates’ readers won’t see how she abuses Lowell’s poem, which is, I think, a fine thing. She can’t pawn this one off on the chimerical “interviewer” who interrogates Frost, for reasons that should be obvious. The poet might have been haunted by many a thing in 1951, but among them couldn’t be the phrasing of a poem written after he died, or remarks he may have made in confidence to Robert Lowell in the dying fall of November 1962. Oates works dubiously with what any party to the affair could have been conscious or “unconscious” of at the time (that last term pops up at the end of the tall tale). She has her “limited, selected” way with the intersecting “histories” of two dead poets.

Whistle in a literary graveyard, sure, but never cackle.

~ ~ ~

Postscript: Alice Robb, at the New Republic, has now written an article about the controversies associated with Oates’ short story.

How Literary Criticism Arises

November 17, 2012

From an interview Noam Chomsky lately gave to The Atlantic (the interviewer is Yarden Katz):

If you ask neuroscientists why understanding the brain is so difficult, they give you very intellectually unsatisfying answers, like that the brain has billions of cells, and we can’t record from all of them, and so on.

Chomsky: There’s something to that. If you take a look at the progress of science, the sciences are kind of a continuum, but they’re broken up into fields. The greatest progress is in the sciences that study the simplest systems. So take, say physics — greatest progress there. But one of the reasons is that the physicists have an advantage that no other branch of sciences has. If something gets too complicated, they hand it to someone else.

Like the chemists?

Chomsky: If a molecule is too big, you give it to the chemists. The chemists, for them, if the molecule is too big or the system gets too big, you give it to the biologists. And if it gets too big for them, they give it to the psychologists, and finally it ends up in the hands of the literary critic, and so on.

As my friend Mark Scott puts it: “The bigger the system, the more literary.”

I wonder what lies beyond literary criticism in Chomsky’s charming “and so on.” Surely we’ve already passed through the social sciences before we ever set our iambic feet—dimeter: accent on the metatarsal ball—in the English Department (whose corridors lead to an un-alarmed door marked “Exit”).

But whom do literary critics hand their systems off to? Follow that line out far enough and you may wind up in politics. In a 1938 letter to R.P.T. Coffin, Robert Frost says: “A real artist delights in roughness for what he can do to it. He’s the brute who can knock the corners off the marble block and drag the unbedded beauty out of bed. The statesman (politician) is no different except that he works in a protean mass of material that hardly holds the shape he gives it long enough for him to get credit for it. His material is the rolling mob.”

So. There we have it. From the physicist’s Higgs Boson up to (or is it down to?) the statesman’s rolling mob. Good to know, now, where The Era of Casual Fridays stands along that continuum.

Noam Chomsky (photograph by Graham Gordon Ramsay).