Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Robert Lowell's "Obit"

In the mid-1960’s, after the free verse turn of Life Studies and the somewhat more strictly entuned For The Union Dead, books distinctive for their powerful combination of Baudelairean spleen and frank autobiographical detail, Robert Lowell turned to the writing of sonnets – by the gross. The obsessions which drove those earlier works – the power and impotence of history; the poet’s relationship with his family; divorce; madness; death – are, if anything, even more evident in such works as Notebook 1967-68 and its companion volume, The Dolphin. In these latter two books, Lowell runs roughshod over the conservative qualities long associated with the sonnet. “Obit,” which closes Notebook, is a case in point. Lowell’s status as a renegade (he broke with Eliot!) has always been over-stated. Yet “Obit,” which I’d venture to say is moving to anyone who’s been divorced, is a very traditional sonnet: a love song and elegy that upholds the sonnet’s cultural position as an elite marker of subjective experience.

“Obit” is a lament for the end of a marriage and an era. For Lowell, the personal and the public are nearly always read in terms of each other, and, no exception, this poem’s imagery conflates the historical details of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the initial promise and then demise of his own marriage to writer Elizabeth Hardwick. While most critics seem content to attribute this kind of conflation of the historical and the personal to Lowell’s “vision,” part of the grand scale on which he operates, a sharper critique might suggest that the poet suffers from grandiose self-aggrandizement, narcissistically grafting his domestic woes onto the collective in a bid to inflate their value.

Having already made the radical break from his Agrarian mentors, Tate and Ransom, and seeking to overthrow the tyrannical grip of Eliot as well by following the example of Williams, Lowell now desired for yet another breakthrough. He sets out to achieve it by returning to the most traditional of poetic forms. Yet this turn to the sonnet needs to be read as part of a larger cultural moment, an overall chafing and disgust with the narrowness of Cold War culture in America. His libidinal investment in his own ego, while blatantly sentimental, must be read as a form of resistance to the stifling cultural regime of his time. It can be placed within the overall rejection of conformity that marked other cultural rebellions, from jazz to Mailer to Ginsberg and the Beats (Lowell’s wry remarks about the contemporary fault line between the raw and the cooked notwithtstanding).

The slide into cultural decay that marks “For the Union Dead,” with its “savage servility,” characterizes the post-Kennedy era for Lowell through the deflation of currency, the “old undebased pre-Lyndon/silver, no copper rubbing through.” Looking back on it from a vantage point of almost a decade, the poet muses that he knows now what he would have, if only he could: “old cars, old money ... old wives.” This line is delivered straight on, without any leavening touch of irony. One’s sympathies are entirely with Ms. Hardwick at this point. But the sense of nostalgia the poem’s first quatrain seems to invite is undercut immediately by the very first line itself, with its tone of grim resignation: “In the end it gets us, though the man know what he'd have.”

What is this “it” Lowell invokes? The sonnet's title points to an answer. “It” is either death itself, or its less than noble announcement in the daily newspaper. “It” gets us, Lowell says, with all the weariness of a dying Romantic poet, despite our best intentions, our deepest desires, our protestations of undying love. “It” may not only be the mortal condition, but human fickleness, too; the sad inability to keep faith even with that which is truest and best in oneself. “It” is the failure of love and love’s faith in its own promises.

“Obit” is a Shakespearean sonnet in blank, or unrhymed, verse. The poem does not scan neatly into iambic pentameter so much as follow a loose iambic rhythm. Of course, Lowell, whose technical gifts were superb, could have compelled this sonnet into strict obedience to traditional blank verse meter. Instead, he opted for a more flexible scheme that allowed him to capture the tone and feel of contemporary conversation and thought. As with so much else that he wrote, Lowell strains at the limitations of form, in the process changing our ideas of what a sonnet can and ought to be. With their wild range in pitch and meter, their giddy, freely cannibalistic efforts to capture everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, the sonnets in Notebook and its sequel, The Dolphin, often read like anti-sonnets, poems hell-bent on upending the furniture in the politely ordered room of this quaint, domesticated genre. The results are sometimes powerful, as in “Obit.” More often than not, though, they’re embarrassingly messy, and not in the triumphantly zany and delightful way that Ted Berrigan’s ramshackle and moving sonnets are, which appeared about the same time.

The first quatrain lays out the poem’s argument, or complaint: the chafing against death by a desire belatedly realized; the longing for old ways of living, for the old emotional currencies; and the understated candor of the poet’s admission, in line 4, that, “I could live such a too long time with mine,” meaning his wife. Pity the poor wife. The second quatrain, which begins like the first, (“In the end”), introduces a repeating musical figure as well as a conceptual motif, and expands the emotional reverie into a broader philosophical arena in which the poet meditates on the nature of being and death. “Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest/of all transcendence in a mode of being, stopping/all becoming.” This almost sounds like Wallace Stevens. In fact, it may be a quotation from Marcuse, according to the book’s “Afterthought,” but since Lowell doesn’t set off these lines with quotation marks, it’s hard to know.

At any rate, these ambiguous and somewhat enigmatic lines suggest that even the effort to attain some manner of transcendence over the daily business of life is fraught with its own built-in trap of delusional self-importance. Moreover, Lowell (the poet as “hypochondriac” -- line 5), also expresses the dubious hope that just before death, he might be vouchsafed a moment of perfect clarity and stillness. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be desired,” as that other grand ditherer in consciousness, Hamlet, opined, in a slightly different context.

The third quatrain actually begins its turn midway into line 8 with “I’m for and with myself in my otherness” and continues to line 12. The recognition that psychic opposition is actually a form of mutuality testifies less to a spiritual overcoming than to the kind of self-possession made possible by psychoanalysis. Lowell goes on to contemplate a form of renewal and possible redemption, albeit on an impersonal, cosmic scale, by an intense identification with “the eternal return of earth’s fairer children,/the lily, the rose, the sun on dusk and brick,” that is, through the reassuringly universal constants of nature itself, as well as those of human behavior: “the loved, the lover... their unconquered flux.” The dialectical motion of being and becoming considered in the second quatrain, in which the latter is subsumed by the former, is set back into play once more, and through it the poet attains to a broadening of consciousness, a kind of second life, via his panoramic perspective on the little things of life, a rose, the sun at dusk, a pair of lovers.

These lines achieve a mysterious and very affecting degree of tenderness and pathos, reminiscent in some ways of sections in Rilke’s Duino Elegies. It’s almost as if the speaker of the poem has already shuffled off his own mortal coil and now regards the earth he once inhabited from a disembodied vantage point, full of longing for the merely human joys and sorrows (“their painful ‘It was’.”) which he himself can no longer possess. This is where the full weight of the poem’s title makes itself felt. The poem’s nostalgia moves from the personal perspective of lamenting a lost way of life and affection to a posthumous mourning for life itself.

The closing couplet makes a plea and an admission, while its solemn music also returns us to the sort of formal closure we expect the sonnet to provide. “After loving you so much, can I forget/you for eternity, and have no other choice?” The unguardedness of these lines manages to be deeply touching. The unbearable regret Lowell expresses here commingles with the sense that what is irrecoverable in life is precisely that which marks it as most profoundly human. The forlorn dejection of the narcissist is made to stand eloquently for a larger sense of loss and the heady style of “Obit” proves itself to be thoroughly and comfortingly classical in its sensibility. Lowell almost rescues the sonnet from its worse tendencies – its grandiosity and “gigantism,” as he calls it in his “Afterthoughts” -- transforming it into an instrument of tremendous flexibility and restoring to it its accustomed intimacy through his use of colloquial, idiosyncratic language.

Yet the problem with deploying a language of raw emotion, whether it’s Lowell’s mawkish self-pity, or Ginsberg’s hyped-up adverts for the liberation of the self, is that it inevitably falls prey to the sentimentalism which underwrites it. In the end, sentimentalism is a kind of totalitarianism writ small; it is the repression, or even evacuation, of the self in the service of a master idea about the purity of an impossibly unmediated emotion. The unmoored “it” floating in the first part of the sonnet before its dramatic turn, persists, as Lacan would say, as the symptomatic kernel of trauma that keeps generating a perverse pleasure. “It” is not death at all, really, but the gratification the poet takes in revisiting the occasion of his painful loss. “Obit” revels in such discordant pleasure. Nobody ever worried a sore tooth, or a bereft soul, like Robert Lowell.

(1997, rev. 2010)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Avatar and The Hurt Locker

As most everyone on the planet knows by now, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were briefly married to each other in the early 90s. No match in Hollywood seemed more apt, if judged solely on the basis of devotion to a cinema of harrowing energy. It was during this time that I worked for them both, first at Cameron’s fledgling Lightstorm Entertainment’s bunker-like facility, situated in the industrial wastelands behind Burbank Airport. The joke around the office was that the place could take a direct nuclear hit. This was when Jim was filming T-2 and the office canteen featured a Terminator pinball machine as well as a life-size model of the Terminator itself, a demonically glowering metal skeleton. The industrial bay that took the entire back half of the building was large enough to park a plane inside. Under the direction of Jim’s younger brother, Mike, it was a thriving shop floor, packed with heavy-duty machines that cranked out hi-tech widgets. It was that kind of place: juiced on testosterone and apocalypse.

I later came to work, much more closely, with Bigelow, fresh off the now iconographic Point Break, from the couple’s home, perched on a cliff off Mulholland Drive. During this time they divorced and the huge double-terminated quartz crystal that adorned a table in the living room, a gift from Kathryn to Jim, spoke volubly for me of a potent absence. One day, when things were nearly over, Jim came into my “office,” a converted carriage house stuffed with Kathryn’s books, which included works by Louis Althusser and Robert Bresson, and began reciting the opening quatrains of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and The Carpenter.” It struck me as a kind of oblique elegy, full of heartfelt loss, but tossed off with a boyish shrug of sangfroid.

Years and divergent career paths later, these two incredibly gifted filmmakers have given us an extraordinary pair of movies, each of which, in its own way, demonstrates powerfully the need of art to push violently against its own boundaries. In a perverse way, they’ve made the same movie. Both set their stories in far off lands, among alien cultures, where a brutal colonial war is underway. Both offer critiques of that war and of the allure and dangers of violence. And both are deeply invested in cinema as the medium par excellence for total immersion in the immediate.

Avatar and The Hurt Locker want to overwhelm the viewer, not merely with images of wonder or terror, but with a near-absolute experience of being-there. The formal virtuosity they employ to achieve this effect in both cases is breathtaking. Resistance is futile.

Cameron’s critique of violence is bluntly sentimental. He extols the virtues of primitivism while dazzling us with cinematic shock and awe. But the immense set pieces of destruction that make up the film’s bloated second half bludgeon feeling, rather than quicken it. Bigelow’s critique of violence is more subtle and complex, pervaded by a weird and unsettling ambiguity. For while The Hurt Locker is at pains to show us the brutal human costs of warfare, it also gives us war’s visceral thrill, its disturbing elations.

The estranging effects of violence don’t factor into Avatar. What Cameron has ingeniously created instead is a film about the experience of seeing films. Jake occupies a roughly analogous position to the filmgoer, a prompt for our own experience. Slide into your casket and slip on your trodes; settle in your seat and put on your glasses – and whammo – you’re transported, instantly, to utopia, ecstatic otherwhere. The power of the medium is such that it erases the mediation in order to make one feel the immediate. Film is a prosthetic device that makes us complete.

For Bigelow, immediacy is everything, too. The Hurt Locker opens with a sobering epigraph, from war journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” But if war is a drug, then so is film. Both intensely claustrophobic and exhilaratingly expansive, the film plunges us into a closed-in universe where the sound of your own heartbeat is a ticking bomb. Indeed, the entire premise of the film, built around the defusing squad, stands as a rich metaphorical mirror image to the work of the filmmaker, who constructs intricate devices to capture and replicate sensations in order to blow us away. No other film in recent memory, Avatar notwithstanding, demonstrates so powerfully the potentiality of filmmaking itself. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is a film about filmmaking. It’s an allegory for not only how we structure representations of experience, but for how those structures are susceptible to estrangement.

Avatar and The Hurt Locker are not the same film. But they are dreaming the same dream. The name of that dream is total cinema and it begins with Wagner’s massive operas. Since then, Western art has striven to immerse us entirely within works of art that are simultaneously hermetic and diaphanous, self-contained and boundless. Avatar and The Hurt Locker, the one lumbering and elephantine, the other manic and termite-like, to use Manny Farber’s shrewd distinction, come achingly close to realizing the old dream of a total work of art.

Yet for all their aggressive modernity, the pleasures that both movies offer are ancient pleasures, little different, for all their bedazzlements, from what Homer achieves in The Iliad with the death scenes of Patroclus or Hector. Avant-garde technology still serves humanist needs.

In her famous essay, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Simone Weil writes that the true subject of the poem is force and its distorting effects; the way it turns humans into things. Force is an idol which extracts a heavy toll from all who would pray to it. In The Iliad, she asserts, “the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” The commitment of both filmmakers to what I would call intensity, rather than force, poses a significant question about the ethical implications of their formal accomplishments. Can we critique something even as we enjoy its representation? And to what extent do we then become complicit in the subject of such a critique?

Avatar’s narrower emotional range forecloses these questions. For all its delights, the movie is finally too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a gameboy wetdream, to return any dividends along these lines. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, precisely because it does not address the ideological content of its subject head on, is the more serious moral work. It invites us to consider, amid its frenzied mayhem, what it means to submit oneself to force, to risk losing oneself in force’s narcotic rush.

Once, we were viewing a clip from a silent film Kathryn admired as part of the preparation for our own project. In the middle of a particularly anguished scene in which the heroine undergoes an excruciating internal struggle that seems to magnify her face, Kathryn exclaimed, "she's like a force of nature!” I always thought this got to the core of what Bigelow tries to do in nearly every one of her films. This is where she likes her heroes – in extremis, at the very edge, hanging on by their fingernails. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days.

They are not so much redeemed by the violence they unleash as undone by it, left shaken and trembling. Bigelow’s staging of violence in The Hurt Locker is grittier and more morally complicated than the comforting mythic scenarios of Avatar. It makes more stringent demands of both its hero and its audience. And while it trades openly in the electric currency of the immediate, it also asks us to consider the cost of our addiction to immediacy. It’s a movie about shock that asks us to reflect on shock’s melancholy wages. In other words, it’s a movie for grown ups who like some moral doubt mixed in with their sense of wonder.

That’s why, come Oscar night, I’ll be rooting for Kathryn, not Jim.