Monday, August 30, 2010

This Sunday The New York Times published "Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours" on it's online-only opinion blog, aptly named Opinionator. The article is by Alexander Nehamas, who draws a cogent parallel between Plato's proposal to banish all the poets from his ideal republic and a law California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed fining stores that sold games with “sexual and heinous violence” to children. Both the former Terminator and Plato were convinced of the corrupting effects of representation, and neither got his wish--people (a handful at least) still read Homer, and a California court struck down the Governor's law.

And as much as I like being told Classics like Plato's Republic are still relevant, Nehamas omits a crucial fact when he describes Plato and his works, the most crucial, I think—Plato's suspicion of representation is suspicious because he uses representation to illustrate all his best points. Plato didn't write The Republic or anything else from his own perspective, rather he made Socrates his mouthpiece, and Plato's Socrates is not particularly historically accurate. Plato’s puppet Socrates does—later—soften his position on poet-banishment, saying the republic could let artists back in if they agree to tow the party-line, but because Plato bashes representation so thoroughly, while representing someone else, it's hard to tell what he really thought.

I'm not sure if Nehamas and the Times are trying to hoodwink us the way Plato tried to hoodwink his readers, but this is always the way it is with art: we're okay with representation, just not all representation. The Terminator movies, okay. Heinous violence in video games, not okay. (Actually, I like Terminator 1, 2, and 3, and hate video games, so I find this an acceptable argument, but if I must stand on principle) I share Plato’s suspicion of representation. I saw a Special K commercial the other day where a woman sits down to mimic a tea party with her very small (4 or 5-year-old) daughter. They are using the daughter’s tea set (also very small and complete with table and chairs) and when the woman stands up, the chair come with her. So she walks to the kitchen, pulls out a box of Special K, and pours herself a bowl. The announcer then tells you how to diet using Special K. Kellog is—in effect—saying, "Ladies, you should diet if you don't fit everything your 5-year-old fits." Only it’s less offensive than if the company just came right out and said that. This is the danger of images, and of poetry, too, although fewer people interact with poetry these days than they do with commercials and video games. You see—hahaha—images and representations communicate to us directly and subversively.

Some art is always going to be nutritious, some will always be junk-food, and some of it is poison. I’m not going to end by saying, “Listen to your gut.” I’m not going to end by saying, “Stop if you feel sick.” The only thing more noxious than representation is someone telling you what to do.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

When Will We Ever Learn

So I went to this talk "Green Shakespeare"--English professors from all over the country practicing what they call eco-criticism talked about A Mid Summer Night's Dream.

The argument was basically that Dream recognized the many and interconnected ecosystems that make up our world. What Shakespeare called "fairies" we call bacteria, microbes etc., but the fact that these things exist and are wound up with our human survival is nonetheless expressed.

And I asked the question, which for me is every question--as often as art is and has been radical, art has also towed the line. For example, in the Bible when God gives dominion over the plants and the animals to man. I think that has just as much to do with our current environmental policies as the double cherry stem in Dream. What then do you do with that?

The answer that came back from the panel was that reading a lot of literature doesn't make you good. Reading a lot of literature makes you more of what you are.

This troubles me because it seems to give up on the possibility of learning.

If there is a core inside of ourselves that can't change, then there is a limit to knowledge which I think we come up on much harder and faster than the things outside of ourselves that are steadfast--reality, right, and wrong.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hamlet takes a break from avenging his father’s murder in order to stage a play. Hamlet directs three players that the purpose of playing is to mimic reality exactly (if flatly) and hold “the mirror up to nature.” But Hamlet himself does not want to be a mirror as much as he wants to be real. In his first speech Hamlet insists he is much more than a flat representation of a person, “Tis not alone my inky cloak…” etc., etc., “These indeed seem for they are actions that a man might play:/ But I have that within which passes show.”

This is where what Hamlet calls his “antic disposition” comes in.

When Hamlet the character is acting, he is playing an actor, and not the other way round. This is when Hamlet is happiest. It cannot, however, be all the time because Hamlet also has, (within the context of the play), very real reasons to be upset: Claudius’s murder of his father, and grabbing of crown and queen. Thus there are also times when Hamlet must display these emotions. That’s when the actor plays him, and these are the moments Hamlet is least happy.

Thus, Hamlet is revolted by the other characters in the play, (those who are more than mere servants), because their existence and actions, he knows, will inevitably cause him to have to stop play-acting.

The “mighty opposites” that Hamlet says Guildenstern and Rosencrantz have come between are not Hamlet and Claudius, but Hamlet’s determination to be self-determined, and the inescapable fact that he is a character written by another man. Hamlet’s old friends tried to kill him off-stage, thus hijacking the end of the play from both character and author. They deserved their fate.

And make no mistake, Hamlet is a fatalistic play, and necessarily, because as Hamlet is so unhappily aware—characters don’t determine their actions, their authors do. This also gives Hamlet a large moral license.

The play ends with Hamlet resigned to this situation, “Let be." But while Hamlet is still raging he tries to convince us that our situation in reality is no different from an actor’s in a play. In a speech we are supposed to believe was written by Hamlet, the “Mousetrap” King says, “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” This is a trick. Taken at face value these words should exonerate, if not Claudius, at the very least Gertrude. That’s something Hamlet is clearly unwilling to do, as he continues to chide Gertrude and guilt Claudius, even as the Mousetrap play within the play goes on.

Shakespeare, who is, of course, Hamlet’s author, and also the author of what Hamlet authors, allows his character to make this mistake between words and deed, even as Hamlet fusts about word and deed. Hamlet cannot possibly know this because he is a character in a play--but reality is not so oppressive, we can be constant.

There are, of course, forces outside our control that act (hahaha) on us, but if these, possibly, partially, remove our ends from us, they also color our thoughts. The awareness is all. And on the most important point, morality, we are not hapless characters, but our own authors. Nothing, I mean nothing, outside of lunacy (which is an internal situation and not an external one) removes from us our moral obligations. We don’t, of course, have to choose morality (if we did our ends would not be our own, and it would not be something to strive for).

That outside forces act on us, does not remove this choice--for example, someone tries to stab you with a knife, you struggle and in the struggle you take that person’s life. This is a situation where you life, but not your soul, is at stake. Hamlet controls not what he does, thus we forgive him his huge moral failings. Even after his cruelty to Ophelia and slaying of Polonius, he is still our hero. This would not work for a real person who treated real people this way. We are freer than Hamlet, thus we are more bound.

Monday, December 28, 2009

This is the time of the year when I reread Hamlet and get very, very upset that I--and the people around me--are not the authors of our own destiny; that outside forces act on me, and that's called reality.

My plan was to figure out what the use of representation is to reality, then write it down for this blog-post. I think it's a little bit more complicated than a mirror up to nature (whatever nature is), but I haven't gotten there yet.

I care a great deal about representation in art and poetry inexplicably, I'm still not sure it's worth a damn.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Of course writing distorts all things

Of course writing distorts all things--be they physical objects or ideas. The apple on your counter is singular and complete, while any written description of that apple will be lengthy, multiple, and incomplete. Similarly goodness exists--(Yes! I really believe this!)--simply and indestructibly. Yet any attempt to define goodness in words inevitably becomes couch-y, contingent, amorphous, and thus prone to destruction.

Still, we cannot live without words. What writing is really good at is holding a multiplicity in mind. Just as you have difficulty remembering to get eggs, milk, and soap when you go to the grocery store, but have no trouble if you write a list. This is important because things are not just themselves but exist visible from many angles, surrounded by other things, in an ether which is feeling and imagination. Writing helps us to combat the loneliness of discreet objects in the mind. And to better represent the brick, which is as much a building as it is a brick, in the mind.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blog Was Sleepy, Not Dead

There seem to be two overriding sentiments about American poetry

1) there is a lot of it
2) it is all crappy

Now I certainly don't want to be the apologist for putrid verse, but it seems to me that both these things cannot be true at once.

In December I interviewed a professor of English at Columbia University who said that modern poetry had swelled to such a size, with so many different pooets writing; and, simultaneously, become so fractured, with so many different schools and styles, that it had become a sublime object--utterly impossible to wrap ones mind around in full. Imagine a shiny ball so large you can't see the edges--can't determine, indeed, that it is a ball. Now imagine this ball to be made up entirely of twinkly splinters--splinters just large enough to feel in your foot, but not large enough to pluck out with tweezers. That's more or less what he thought modern poety was. (One further analogy to a big ball of splinters, he also seemed to think that most of it was annoyingly painful.)

A month later Daivd Orr published his epic "On (Great)ness" in the New York Times where he said more people were writing than ever before and none of them were great, with the exception of, possibly, John Ashbery.

This kind of talk makes me so mad, it makes me so mad. Now I just don't see how anyone can make such broad and pompous claims with a straight face. "Great" artists (whatever that means) have died in obscurity. It's the nature of art that you don't always know what you are looking at, and, often, you get more on a re-visitation than you did at the first pass. Moreover, if modern poetry is so large and nebulous that you can spend all day everyday reading it--and still have more to read--then how could anyone possibly know it is all bad?

"What if the next great poet is laboring away in obscurity?"

I asked this of a former teacher (and prize winning poet). He said it couldn't happen. "We are more self-aware now than ever before," he said. Couldn't happen. But, he added one caveat.

"If," he said, "they were submitting"--to magazines, publishers, etc.

"If they were submitting?!? If they were submitting!?!" You mean this recluse crazy genius has regular lucid correspondence with Knopf? Yeah, I know, the crazy-genius is an idiotic stereotype, possibly just as unlikely as the idea that no modern poetry is good--writing well takes work, it takes time, and, often, it takes talking to other writers. The next great poet isn't going to come out of thin air. Poets, despite what Plato might have told you, are people, too.

But even if a poet was submitting their work, I just don't buy the arguement that they couldn't get missed. We could miss them. We could totally miss them.

And that's okay.

Life is like that--it's large, it's messy, it's complicated. To the point of incomprehensibility. Sublime things (in Burke's defention of the sublime) are, so overriding that they can't be analyze. They fill the mind and wipe away thought all at once, like the moment a drill bit hits a cavity in your mouth. Your only thought is the pain--you have no thoughts. That pain is sublime.

One of the pleasures of art and poetry is escaping to these prescribed little worlds where everything is orchestrated and controlled--where we can see everything. It may take a long time to read Homer's Odyssey, but you can do it, you can see the edges. You may get more on a second reading than you did on a first, you may get even more on a third, but the borders are always going to be there. Art expands in depth into understanding. Art doesn't circle ever more diffusely outwards into incomprehensibility--it can't. Because we are always going to be able to see the edges, be they the borders of a book, or a painting, the last bar of the song. Thus everything within those borders will seem to have a reason, even if the only reason is to create a simulacrum of disorder and outward expansion. The real world, however, expands outwards into incomprehensibility. It's the difference between the cliff face that inspired Wordsworth to write a poem, and Wordsworth's poem about a cliff face.

Thus the American poetry scence has come to resemble life, not art. The world is more populous than ever before, and more people are literate than ever before. In the United States women are taught to read and write, minorities are taught to read and write, poor people are taught to read and write. Those are three groups big groups were never taught to read and write before. That's great.

So what American poetry has gotten a lot harder to keep track of, and sift the good from the bad? Tough. That's life.