Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cool Hand Luke: What Louis Menand Gets Right – and Not So Right -- about Eliot & Modernism

I’ve written about Luke Menand here before and my problem, if it even is one, with his compelling brand of intellectual history. Just to be clear here: I came away from my experience as his teaching assistant for “Art & Thought in the Cold War” at Harvard with nothing but admiration. He is a brilliant lecturer, a consummate professional, and despite what appears to be at first a slightly distant, somewhat awkward, reserve, stemming entirely, I think, from an intense shyness, a decent, down to earth guy.

My frustration with the way he often frames his accounts of cultural history is inseparable from my fascination with the appeal of his style. As David Bromwich notes, somewhat snarkily, in his review of American Studies, once Menand covers something, it stays covered. Case closed. Bromwich is vexed, though, and he can’t be alone, in wondering what it is, exactly, that Menand stands for in any of his summary pronouncements. It’s less a matter of evading a position, then an aversion to taking positions at all. He’s like the Cheshire cat of intellectual history, a sly smile fading out over the scene of writing.

The success of that writing hinges on appealing to a reader’s craving for being in the know. Menand satisfies this craving with a carefully qualified performance of knowingness. But its often achieved more through rhetorical strategies than analytical persuasion. The fascination is frustrating – how does he do what he does? Where is that shaky line drawn, exactly?

In his new review of T.S. Eliot’s two-volume letters Menand draws on his earlier account of how Eliot invented himself. That book was about Eliot’s self-fashioning as a modernist. Indeed, self-fashioning is the thread that runs through many Menand essays. Such an approach provides a bright hook but I suspect Menand’s interest in it – whether writing of Holmes and James, Kerouac and MacDonald, or Friedan and Warhol – runs deeper than that. It’s not just that such a framing of literary and cultural history lines up with his pragmatist approach: things turn out the way they do because people are the way they are. There’s something autobiographical, or autotelic, to it as well. It takes a self-fashioner to know one.

What Menand gets right about Eliot is his centrality for the New Critics and the evolution of the modern English Dept. What annoys me about this is the reductiveness of such an explanation, as though modernism came about because Eliot had a bad case of the yips. Marked by his characteristic cannyness, his seductive sense of giving the reader the inside scoop, he somewhat naively follows the Hugh Kenner model – modernism was hatched on the spot by the valiant Men of 1914 (Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Lewis). I ate this up the first time I read The Pound Era, when I was 20. But there’s no room in this superhero origin story for Woolf, Richardson, HD, Moore, Stein, Loy, Cather, Williams, Hughes, or Stevens. Lawrence is slightingly alluded to in his clever (and pragmatic) riff on modernism as a turn inward and below the waist.

If this protest seems excessive, try to imagine this: a Menand essay (or one by the Salinger-idolizing Adam Gopnik -- Salinger? Really? But then The New Yorker is nothing if not self-congratulatory) of equal gravity and full-dress staging on the correspondence of William Carlos Williams. Right.

Menand is terrific at assessing the relation of the individual talent to the tradition of institutional history; not so good at detailing the fine grain of modernism as it actually happened. Granted, it’s a review of TSE’s letters – not a grand overview of a moment. That said, the bias of the piece is to collapse the moment into Eliot’s hollow soul. To reduce modernism to the Men of 1914 is rather like claiming that postmodernist poetry in America sprang from Lowell’s Life Studies, without mentioning Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Ginsberg, and Baraka.

Reading The New Yorker piece alongside Michael Levenson’s excellent new book, Modernism, offers a useful counterpoint. Levenson, taking the wider range of reference that a book-length study allows, places Eliot’s prewar poetry alongside Blaise Cendrars. The value of such a comparison is that it rejects “the clarity of the contrast,” as he puts it, inviting us to “recognize the sheer spread of experiment” that marked this moment. But of course Levenson, a distinguished
scholar, is writing for a different audience.

This is where Menand as scholar hews a bit too closely to The New Yorker’s house style and its commitment to entertain. It’s a style that he’s both ably critiqued and exemplified. Scholarship and journalism are uneasy bedfellows, and the need to produce popularizing accounts of complex historical and aesthetic moments often leads a writer to lean too much toward his audience. I suspect Menand doesn’t so much acknowledge as wish to abolish the distinction. This is part of his success and charm as a writer. The Metaphysical Club, for instance, though dutifully more circumspect in tone, nevertheless reads like a very very long New Yorker article. (And much like a New Yorker piece, it all boils down to a simple comforting explanation: the Civil War produced American modernism out of the pragmatist’s aversion to totalizing theories). That is one of the reasons for its enormous appeal – the book is a sheer pleasure to read. And it's what I love about Menand’s work: he sees no reason why smart writing about difficult subjects shouldn’t also be pleasurable.

(Hence this slightly left-handed homage: as Ben Jonson translates Quintillian on writing: "First, seek to emulate the best").

In one of his essays – on Trilling, I think – he remarks that the process of becoming a writer is rooted in pleasure; it arises from wanting to learn how to make sentences the way someone like Trilling does. It’s a model I subscribe to myself. It’s something every writer feels, I think. Yet in treating such a significant figure as Eliot, the pleasure tends to get in the way of the history; the need to score the witty apercu overshadows the entanglements and ambiguities of modernism. T.S. Eliot didn’t invent modernism so much as suffer it.

Menand reproduces without comment Pound's famously flabbergasted remark to Harriet Monroe about Eliot having modernized himself. But did he really? This trucking in moth-balled myth does modernist studies no good. As Menand himself notes, "Prufrock" could not have been written without the example of Jule LaForgue (nor, before him, Baudelaire). So much for autogenesis.

Nor did Eliot, as Menand’s very good book on him puts it, even discover modernism. Rather, he made himself into a modernist through a combination of a violent, that is, original style, and some shrewd (if now rather hollow) obiter dicta which captivated the imagination and practice of a generation of scholars in search of a method. That it spread like crabgrass is no achievement on Eliot’s part, even if he did little to discourage it. Here’s where I could do with a little less pragmatist bottom-lining and a little more Frankfurt-style dialectics.

Menand is very good at locating Eliot’s poetics as both a symptom and a critique of modernity. And he’s certainly right, and funny, about the way the Notes to “The Waste Land” have been read by critics as some kind of paratextual holy of holies. It’s all in all a deft summation of a career whose influence it’s difficult to overestimate. But that deftness, which is driven more by narrative concerns than the needs of literary history, also feels impoverished; marked as much by what it excludes as what it includes. He’s rather too cavalier about TSE’s involvement with Action Francaise, while his account of Eliot’s marriage to Vivien strains for an impersonal and unsympathetic tone that is greatly at odds with the acute misery of the couple.

What Menand seems to find most admirable in Eliot is not the poetry, nor even the powerful early criticism, but the pace and resolve of Eliot’s industry. It’s not so much what he did as the impact that he had which he finds impressive, even enviable. That the critic should pay homage to the critic is no surprise. But is Eliot still, nearly a century after the publication of “The Waste Land,” “the most important figure in 20th Century English language literary culture”? I thought we’d moved beyond the Great Man cult. Menand’s co-editor for The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Lawrence Rainey, makes a more subtle case in his essay on Pound/Eliot about the critical obsession with literary hierarchies, and even Marjorie Perloff, whom Rainey is riffing on, seems, in her “Avant-garde Eliot,” to edge carefully toward their position, re-claiming early Eliot as an exotic species for her prewar garden of the avant-garde.

I’m not sure I buy it.

What’s at stake here, really? Verifying that Ivor Richards was right all along in consecrating Eliot as the Next Big Thing and that time and consequence have done nothing to change that? Eliot’s sphinx-like qualities lend him to all manner of template-making and revisionary ratios. we can read whatever we want into The Man Who Was Not There -- But Who Really Was. Personally, I’m at a loss as how to account for the distance between my own intoxicated enthusiasm for his pre-“Ash Wednesday” work when I was young and my defensive guardedness when I try to teach “Prufrock” or “The Waste Land” all these years later. What’s changed? Well, for one thing, I've learned a lot more about what modernism is and how it got that way. Same poem, different page.

Which is to say that all these years later it's Dr. Williams of Rutherford, NJ who seems to me more and more to claim the cardinal role in the early avant-garde.
Spring & All
, recently re-issued in a beautiful facsimile edition by New Directions, came out in 1923, one year after "The Waste Land" set off its detonation, first in The Dial, then in the Boni & Liveright book, with the newly added Notes. (Rainey presents the definitive textual history of its publication, including all the background negotiations conducted by Pound and John Quinn -- who deserves his own monograph for his role in modernism -- and the extraordinary amount of money the poem fetched its author). And of course, Williams saw the writing on the wall. As he noted later, in his "Autobiography," the appearance of "The Waste Land" was “the great disaster to our letters — it gave the poem back to the classroom.”

More and more, Eliot's "modernism" looks like an extended freak-out about the erosion of self and the disappearance of the past -- one node in Marshall Berman's account of modernity -- while WCW's breakthrough book appears, alongside Stein's Tender Buttons, as the other node -- celebratory and truly innovative -- the singular exemplar of a modernism that was truly modern -- that is, that attended to the new while it contended with the ghosts of the old. "The Waste Land" mourned the dispersal of the Great Traditiion. Spring and All unapologetically made the case for a modernism without the tears.*

Eliot may have invented, willy-nilly, the modern English dept. Though even here Menand's account is biased in favor of the cult of genius. The trend toward a quantitative metrics in literary study was already underway. It would be more accurate to say TSE was its poster boy. At any rate, the tautology that places him as its fountainhead is also one that suppresses an enormous, vital, and equally significant history of literary development that opposed the Eliotic method and continues to flourish today. The history as Menand gives it is a bit too pat, and altogether too settled. The case is not closed.

* I credit Ron Silliman with making the case that nudged me to this consideration, That, and teaching the book for the first time last spring to my class at Amherst College, a week or so after the section on Eliot.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fanmail from Some Flounder

Each year now, for nearly a decade, Steve Evans, at the University of Maine-Orono, has been performing the heroic service of inviting poets to share the 11 titles that have most engaged or excited them over the past year. You can read my list, with comments, here.

The great benefit of Steve's collation is that it allows one to catch up with, or at least be alerted to, the many poetry titles that time and attention span make it impossible to keep up with. Lists, of course, are all about bias, about fixing boundaries and establishing genealogies. A list is desire's argument with transience. Even the most erratic constellation invites pattern recognition. My own, I can't help but notice, speaks to my proclivities for a visionary angularity that has not entirely forsaken the somewhat shop-soiled shibboleth of meaning.

Here are the titles of seven other books of poetry that I found crucial, dazzling, or simply beautiful.

R.H.W. Dillard | What Is Owed the Dead | Factory Hollow | 2011

Michael Price | Doombook | The Figures | 1998

Anna Moschovakis | You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake | Coffee House | 2011

Timothy Donnelly | The Cloud Corporation | Wave Books | 2010

Peter Gizzi | Threshold Songs | Wesleyan | 2011

Srikanth Reddy | Voyager | U Cal Press | 2011

Linda Norton | The Public Gardens | Pressed Wafer | 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

Remembering September 11

N.B. -- this was written on 9/19/01 and published not long after in the now defunct Boulder Arts Paper. Thanks to Jennifer Heath for running it.

Psalm 9.11

"All my pretty ones?
Did you say all?
What, all
At one fell swoop?"



Sun in triage, gone

Wilderness of smoke –
hoop of blasted

[ ]

O gone

deluge I am
going to the end

Speech of madness
that would extinguish every name

Calamity that crushes us into

make my silence
a flame that won’t
go out


Cold water
for the laving
of wounds

than the surface
of the moon

Under cloud
they fall
they turn

Pour cold water
on their eyes
the dead who burn


it’s OK to burn

it’s OK to weep

to the furthest

What is

What is

becomes us in a sweep
of grass, grace


The sundering boom gapes
Who spills, who folds, who falls away

Dust is air, washing over
Is no water &
the beauty of their forms

skyline escarpment stutters,

it is evening—zoom to limb
to house, to rosary

Hell is
sunlight on the toe
of a shoe

Ich bin Ich bin Ich bin
Be all my sins remembered


By the waters of X
I sat down and.

Cold wind
from the furnace
of broken syllables.


Ship this whisper
as music

Be here lovely inside shadow
ache together under storm

the dead are forever
the meaning of any

moment held to
& dissolved


And the point in the spectrum
where all lights become one

announces only

that no one holds

the lone lumen
of stone

but stands
a room

the sound of a voice
at the end

who will mark
my love

when she goes?

Who will stay?


And dropped each

Past reach
of dire lyre

Song now gone
flume consuming

Tasked by

the clot
of living

Wind burn gasp

All peace ceases
out of doom


day open

open day


Yet say this also:

After saying everything
remains to be said

Living the Impossible or, 9/11

(Note; this was written on 09/19/01 and first appeared in The Boulder Arts Paper).

Out of all the images I saw on TV – jets impacting, buildings burning, collapsing, smoke roaring out in a choking shroud – one returns unbidden, over and over: a man in a suit falling head downwards along the length of one of the towers, tiny arms and legs flailing, starting to go into a slow spin. It seemed endless, his falling, then mercifully the footage stopped. And at that point I thought, “I'm on the edge of breaking down completely…”


If anything at all is clear to us from The Event (and very little is) it is that the old responses are no longer available to us. I've felt like Samuel Beckett these past few days: consumed by a desire to say something, having no means to say it, along with the overwhelming obligation to say it anyway.

A friend of mine remarked to me that the first casualty of war is not truth, but language. Bush’s naive appeal to the ultimate villain – “evil” – is not just a gross simplification of a vastly complex historical moment; it’s an invitation to resume our sleepwalking through history. I feel that what we’re really being called to by this calamity is of another order altogether: not revenge, certainly; it goes beyond even justice. It presents itself instead as the call to completely recalibrate the role America plays at large. Such considerations will not provide an “answer” to the Bin Ladens of the world. The only answer to hate is love, as MLK once said, but though we’ve arrived at the point in our history where it seems more necessary than ever, it’s doubtful that compassion will be adopted as the philosophical underpinning for all future foreign policy. Nevertheless, regardless of any impact on the rest of the world it might have, an examination of the enormous blindspot in our perilously conceived self-image and how it funds our actions might form the smallest of beginnings to an urgently needed metanoia.

After the First World War, the French poet Paul Valery observed grimly that “the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. Elam, Nineveh and Babylon were beautiful names. France, England and Russia are beautiful names. Lusitania is a beautiful name.” So is New York City. So is Osama bin Laden.


The morning of the attack I gave a presentation on tropes to my graduate pro-seminar. We sat around the large table stunned and shell-shocked. It seemed absurd. What could be more trivial, more irrelevant, I asked the class, than discussing poetic language? But now more than ever, it’s important that we study poetry. Because in the coming days and weeks ordinary language will undergo hideous deformations as it contorts itself into all kinds of rhetorical postures. Because poetry – and the figural language of poetry – helps us to cope with crisis. It gives a shape to our mourning.

Because the poem will always be equal to the occasion of any human event. Because more than anything else, the poem is that exquisite instrument that enables us to recover and transform loss. It makes the absent present once again. It provides us with a profound form of consolation simply through the performance of its utterance.

Adorno was not wrong when he said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What the disaster invites us into, what it forces us to consider, is how all forms of culture are underwritten by barbarity, that even the most refined expressions of our culture are built out of it. Not to write poetry would, of course, be another kind of disaster. Because if we don’t, then we’re done for.

To go on after The Event will be unimaginably difficult. What can sustain us? If poetry fails to lift us, if language breaks down and proves inadequate to the task of recovery, where do we turn? How do we carry on?

One way is suggested in a recent commentary on the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa by Jacques Derrida, who advances an astonishing idea about forgiveness:

"Yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the one thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin,’ then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible."

This is what we are being called to in this moment: to respond to the unimaginable by performing the impossible, the total and radical act of forgiving the starkly unforgivable. Can we do it? The real question is: can we afford not to do it? We must contemplate again the bleak, two-line parable that came out of the devastation of the death camps, which runs simply, “At Auschwitz, where was God?” And its reply: “Where was man?” Forgiveness here does not imply the forgoing of justice or the inevitable punic demands of the state. As Kristeva notes, forgiveness breaks the chain of cause and effect. It's caesura of temporal logic frees us from the downward spiral of bitterness, vindictiveness, and hate.

However we choose to answer to this harrowing moment, wherever it leads us, and whatever else may come, either by retaliation or by continuing terror attacks, one thing is certain: the task of holding on to the human will occur inside the demands that an impossible compassion lays upon us.

Writing the Disaster or, 9/11

As the day draws closer this week for marking the ten-year commemoration of 9/11, with all its accompanying commentary, it's good to remember the words of Maurice Blanchot from his hermetic text on the Holocaust: "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact ... the disaster takes care of everything ... the disaster is the gift, it gives the disaster."

This Sunday, 9/11/11, I will attend the birthday party of an 8-year old friend named Miles. We will ride a train through a park. We will play miniature golf (always a favorite). And that is how I will mark the anniversary of this event.

But, for what it's worth, I will offer in subsequent posts here portions of my initial reaction to 9/11, which first appeared in The Boulder Arts Paper, thanks to its editor, Jennifer Heath.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Deaths of the Author

Not long after I arrived at Harvard, in 2006, Jane Gallop gave a mesmerizing talk that revisited Roland Barthes' famous essay, "The Death of the Author." (Though it was a Comp Lit event, I remember thinking "where are all the English faculty?" Maybe they, too, had died ...)

That talk -- expanded now -- forms the first chapter of her elegant and powerful new book, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time. Gallop turns the poststructuralist move of decentering the author to fresh account here, going beyond the necessary evacuation of subjective privilege to a moving engagement with the afterlife of the author as a haunting presence whose shadow still fills us with desire.

This is a book about the author as ghost -- a specter who continues to speak to and inspire us. It thinks the gap between the theoretical concept of the author's dethronement and the personal experience of losing writers we hold dear. In the tradition of the best theory, it insists that we cannot consider these things apart, but must always "think them together."

My notes on the lecture took the form of a poem. As I think back on it, perhaps one of the reasons I found her talk so stirring was that I had just lost my mother. The perverse idea of desiring the dead, not in a necrophiliac sense, but in the melancholy register of keeping their departure open, struck a deep chord. As Sebald writes (and as my notes on Solaris take up): "And so they are always returning to us the dead."

Everything hinges on that "and."

The Death of the Author
for Jane Gallop

If I were a writer, and dead, then how bright the sky at evening when evening is a word for making other words.

And how I would love to be dispersed across the sky, ashes thrown to the wind and someone’s beautiful eyes reducing me to a few precious details. Travelling outside whatever my life had been, joining me to a future that cannot know me, except as a toy that resurrects the destroyed.

If I were a writer and no longer a part of my story, but given over unseen to the birds at evensong, returning to the same life, the very same and yet different. Speaking warmly with strangers at the gate, skirting the paths through the park, spying on the couples who are kissing in their sleep, a part of the larger night where everything has already happened without me.

If I were a writer, and dead, I would enter the room of sudden desires. The one with salty snacks and glasses of whiskey. The book there where I had left it. Your eyes, your voice.

Whatever pierces me. Speeches me. Even now, dead, writes me.