Thursday, May 31, 2007

Equivocal Richness and Evensongs

Writes Harold Bloom in The Art of Reading Poetry:
Language, to a considerable extent, is concealed figuration: ironies and synecdoches, metonymies and metaphors that we recognize only when our awareness increases. Real poetry is aware of and exploits these ruined tropes, though it is both a burden and a resource, for later poets in a tradition, that language ages into this wealth of figuration. The major poets of the twentieth century, in Britain and America, were those who could best exploit this equivocal richness: Thomas Hardy, W. B. Keats, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane among them. [1]

For some reason this afternoon the word evening suddenly struck me. It's a great word. The word afternoon is so exact and straightforward that it lacks any mystery. There is something businesslike about it that fits. But evening has something mysterious about it, something almost sinister (The Evening would make for a perfect name for a triller on the New York Times Bestseller list). The name suggests movement, action. Something is going on. It's a good name for a time of day whose cousin is twilight.

I've been trying to think of how evening is used in poetry and I can think of two examples, even without the aid of Google.

There is a prayer by St. Patrick that I like a lot, whose title is usually translated "The Breastplate of St. Patrick" though not always. The following lines are taken from a version, with Victorian liberties taken, by the nineteenth century Anglican hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander:
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free [2]

The line that is most memorable to me is "The whiteness of the moon at even." As the original's version is much less verbose ("├ętrochtai ├ęsci" is all it takes for St. Patrick to say the same thing [3]), Oliver Davies' translation "in Moon's radiance" is more accurate [4], and I like the simplicity (how else can you describe such great and intricate things, sometimes, without simplicity). And let's face it, not many people go for the Victorian aesthetic these days. But there is something haunting about the line "the whiteness of the moon at even."

The Anglicans might have been onto something for calling Vespers Evensong, which reminds me of another hymn, an ancient beautiful hymn, from Vespers:
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the immortal, heavenly, holy blessed Father, O Jesus Christ. Having come to the setting of the sun, having beheld the evening light, we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God. Meet it is at all times to hymn Thee with reverend voices, O Son of God, Giver of Life, wherefore the whole world doth glorify Thee. [5]

Chesterton wrote once that "Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because he has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight." [6] And somehow the evening with its mystery and its sanity, which is so important for those of us who during the day do the world's work the best we can with keyboards and coffee and office cubes and copiers, is wrapped up in and evoked by its name, which is kind of neat.

Good night.

[1] Bloom, Harold. The Art of Reading. Perennial. New York, NY: 2005. And great little book, which as has the advantage of being little. You don't have to buy it; you can just read it in the coffee shop of your local corporate bookstore.



[4] translated by Oliver Davies in Celtic Spirituality (The Classics of Western Spirituality). Paulist Press. Mahwah, NJ: 1999.


[7] chapter 2 of Orthodoxy


a thorn


a seed

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ends, Means, and Art Objects

According to the same essay I quoted last time about X. J. Kennedy, literary critic Randall Jarrell once wrote the following about the great American poet William Carlos Williams: "We want to explain why Williams' free successful, not to make fools of ourselves by arguing that it isn't." I would like to take this sentiment as a starting point for talking about the Russian avant-guarde painter Kazimir Malevich. I am no critic and have only the most superficial knowledge about art, so I can't pretend explain why his paintings are successful, but I am fairly sure that they are. Take, for example, the following painting, Black Circle from 1915:

I suspect even those who roll their eyes at abstract and minimalist art might like Black Circle. Again, I am not sure exactly why, but we might begin by asking what other sorts of choices Malevich could have made: he could have made the circle smaller, or centered it, or changed its color, or made the background a different color (for instance, truly white). The result of these proposed alternatives would be a completely different painting and very likely a worse painting; the existence of bad abstract art works opens the possibility for good ones. And I believe Black Circle is a good painting.

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878-1935) was born and raised in Ukraine, though his parents were Polish and he was baptized Roman Catholic, and he was educated and spent his artistic career in Russia. His art spanned the period of transition between the late imperial and early socialist periods of Russian history, and his art can in some ways be seen as a symptom of the tremendous sickness of Western civilization which gave rise to social turmoil, feverish artistic and intellectual experimentation, and culminated in the devastation of the First World War and the rise of communist and fascist totalitarianism. He called his art Suprematism, wrote a manifesto about it (anybody who was anybody wrote manifestos back then) and was heavily influenced by the Futurists and the Cubists and, I suppose, a few other early 20th century ists as well.

Though Malevich spoke of art for its own sake, apart from naturalist forms, apart from human beings, his theory of art was very much a reaction to earlier movements. In this respect he reflects the spirit of his time. A few other futurist artists in St. Petersburg wrote a manifesto entitled "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" in 1913 proclaiming:
The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics... Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity... He who does not forget his first love will not recognize his last.
After considering the artists who came before them, they add: "From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!"[3] So they said, and so it was with Malevich, whose art has been described as follows:
[His paintings] bluntly announced the end of representation and the advent of new, superior, and limitless possibilities for painting, which was not liberated from what Malevich designated as its "enslavement by forms of nature."[4]
Malevich also wrote that "Creation exists only where paintings present shapes that take nothing from what has been created in nature"[5]. In retrospect, the bizarre iconoclastic optimism of the Futurists "gazing from skyscrapers" and Malevich's liberation from the "enslavement by forms" seems a little naive. There is something particularly adolescent about the whole business. At any rate one wonders if the artist, after proclaiming the greatness of taking nothing from nature, was ever troubled by the embarrassingly numerous examples of squares, triangles, and circles in nature.

It might be helpful to compare the Black Circle with a painting made by another Russian about thirty years before, Ivan Kramskoy's Unknown Woman painted in 1883.

On one hand the two paintings couldn't be more different. Unknown Woman is detailed and skillfully realistic, and, worse than simply showing natural forms, the painting portrays a human being, the worst of all forms to a superartist of the future, and with the gaze of the woman the painting acknowledges a human viewer. Whatever the painting may have been for, it certainly wasn't for art's sake. However, there are some striking similarities. Both Black Circle and Unknown Woman were controversial and probably intentionally controversial, they employ similar contrasting colors, both employ chiaroscuro, and both attempt to draw the viewer beyond the canvas (in the one to a worldly form, in the other to the world of forms). In a way also, but here I might be going a little far, although Unknown Woman is a representative picture, it doesn't necessarily have to be: one should probably understand it to be a painting of a young woman, but it can also be understood merely as a bunch of painted shapes on a canvas. Any representational painting with discipline and perhaps a little squinting can be viewed as an abstract painting (at the very least within the narrow logic of an artistic ideology such as Malevich's), and I suppose psychoanalysis has taught us that any abstract painting can be viewed, with the revealing help of our imagination, as an representational painting.

If I had more time I might research what real art historians and critics have to say about Malevich's work and his artistic theories, because I think that a lot of what he had to say about art being liberated from natural forms and so on was mostly just posturing. He was painting less about the future and more about the past. The only proof I have is a couple of the paintings themselves and an anecdote relating to his painting's religious themes. Take the following painting, Suprematism (1921-1927):

Had the artist really wanted to abandon form, to boldly embrace pure creativity, to throw all the relics of the past (the baby, the bath water, the tub) overboard from the good ship Modernity, surely it would be better to paint something other than a cross. No symbol in Western culture, particularly in Russian culture, steeped as it is in the rich and fertile soil of the Christian tradition, is more central than the cross. It is a symbol not just of a brutal method of execution or a simple emblem of religion, but it represents a very specific cross, a cross of sacrifice and salvation, of murder and suffering love, the cross of "the Cross, the grave, the third day resurrection", the cross that Christianity has called "the beauty of the Universe", but also the cross of the victorious empires (it is fitting that today is the feast day of Ss. Constantine and Helen). But, whether one loves the cross or hates it, merely appreciates its significance in history, or simply shrugs at it indifferently, one simply can not ignore it. Whatever he was saying in Suprematism (honestly I am not sure), surely he is saying something more than that a couple of rectangles merely look pretty good on a canvas.

Another example is his Black Square which, when exhibited at the 0-10 exhibit in St. Petersburg in 1915 was hung in a high corner, the location where icons are traditionally placed in Russian homes; its comparison with Orthodox iconography is explicit (even if it was just a mean-spirited and sarcastic joke of a comparison--I am not sure what his exact intentions were).

A detailed comparison and analysis of this painting from the perspective of the history and theology of Russian Orthodox Iconography would be helpful and interesting, but it is beyond both this blog entry's scope and this blogger's abilities. What is important, I think, is that, by being made in reaction his paintings never break away from what they were made in reaction to. Malevich, in the end, was just as much a slave as Kramskoy or any other painter of the past.

At this point I want to stress that I like Black Square and I wouldn't be too unsettled if I learned in the painting sold at auction for an enormous sum of money (I don't much care about the economics of art); I like paintings of squares as much, if not more, than the next man [6]. Yet I am scandalized by Malevich's artistic ideology, the ideas which made him paint the way he did. In fact, I find his ideas repulsive: arrogant, blasphemous, and inhuman. I love what he wanted so badly to toss away. I like his paintings in spite of his best intentions, because he could not, however much he may have wanted to ,separate them from the natural world and because they were created (even against his own definition), they were created by a human being. This perhaps is the beginning of an answer to my question, which is this: if ends do not justify means, and, in fact, as Wendell Berry wrote, "corrupt and false means inevitably corrupt and falsify ends" then what are we to make of great and undeniably beautiful works of art, so often created by artists with ethical, moral, or philosophical influences which are equally undeniably false and corrupt?

I don't really know, but as I said in the beginning we should not make fools of ourselves arguing that certain things aren't beautiful, but we should probably also not try to explain too much about why they are beautiful, and just be grateful that they are. That beauty exists in the the most corrupt and unlikely, the most dark and horrific, locations in spite of our intentions and our will is a reason for hope.

[1] Here, you might remember, is the link:

[2] All painting displayed are from Wikipedia's Wikimedia Commons.

[3] "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" by D. Burliuk, Alexander Kruchenykh, V. Mayakovsky, Victor Khlebnikov. You can read it here:

[4] From the Guggenheim Museum's "Russia! Catalogue of the Exhibition." I was fortunate enough to see this exhibition in New York a couple years ago. Among other great things, they had an icon painted by Andrei Rublev and Vasily Perov's Portrait of the Writer Fedor Dostoevsky which is on the cover of most paperbacks of F. D.'s works.


[6] I own more than one Rothko print, after all.

Higher Education

Although we addressed him as 'Doctor,'
he possessed neither knowledge nor wealth.
He was entitled, you see,
from an honorary degree
he'd long ago given himself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Marriage and Poetry

An interesting coincidence: I received two wedding invitations in the mail yesterday, (inaugurating the beginning of wedding season, I suppose), and that made me think about poetry, and, since I am neither married nor much of a poet, I am entitled to strong opinions about both.

My one big idea about literature, and poetry in particular, and art in general, is that it always exists within a set of boundaries, and therefore these boundaries should be well understood and intentional (and preferably intended as part of a tradition). [1]

Walt Whitman, with his trademark exuberance, sung about breaking open doors (implying, I imagine, that all doors are in some sense prison doors):
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs![2]
And this can be thought of as a rallying cry to poets who wish to dispense with form altogether, which actually amounts to replacing an old form with a new one, a screen door with a storm door, which really is often a shame. Although it is possible to create great poems without traditional forms (William Carlos Williams and Whitman himself come to mind), yet freedom in poetry usually has an unhappy result, as my own little offerings over the past couple weeks have likely made perfectly apparent. Shigalyov, a radical in Dostoevsky's Demons, says:
I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.[3]
The poet must give up his freedom to say whatever he wants in order to say something worthwhile, and forms help us do this. X. J. Kennedy wrote:
People say, "I dislike rhyme. It won't let me say what I want to say." I answer, "Yes! You've got it! That's what's great about it!"[4]
That's what great about marriage, too (well, that's one of the great things about marriage).

Mr. G. K. Chesterton has said everything I have just said, but with significantly more wit:
Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles"; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.[5]

He even makes the same connection to marriage:

To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which [will-worshippers] used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.[6]

But when you marry one woman, you should not only give up the possibility of being married to all other women, you also give up the possibility of having your own way. And this is a good thing, but I imagine it is rather difficult. Anyway in these and other ways marriage is like art. "Truly, this is a great mystery, as says the apostle."[7]

At any rate the two invitations arriving on the same day is not such an amazing coincidence because both weddings will take place on the same weekend, and the invitation senders were bound by the same laudable sense of etiquette. I'm planning to go to the one here in Pittsburgh. It is a bit of a shame, though, because Massachusetts is lovely in June.

[1] Although I can't pretend to know the first thing about literature, I am told that this has to do with Representation Theory. But I owe the beginnings of my own ideas on the subject, probably, to Neil Postman and also my own misunderstanding of Marshall Mcluhan's maxim "the medium is the message." (But, who knows? Perhaps his whole fallacy is wrong).

[2] From "Song of Myself."

[3] I am quoting here from Richard Pevear's introduction to Notes from Underground (Vintage Classics Edition. September 1994) but really if you get a chance you should read Demons.

[4] The only place I can find a reference to this is on the Alsop Review website where its quoted without a citation.

[5] From Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy. It's in the public domain. You can read it here:

[6] Ibid.

[7] Father Ambrose of St. Barlaam monastery, Meteora, as quoted in Peter Hammond's The Waters of Marah