The Vital Imagination

“Our true awareness of one another is intuitional, not mental. Attraction between people is really instinctive and intuitional, not an affair of judgement. And in mutual attraction lies perhaps the deepest pleasure in life, mutual attraction which may make us “like” our traveling companion for the two or three hours we are together, then no more, or mutual attraction that may deepen to powerful love, and last a lifetime.” 
D.H. Lawrence, Pornography & So On (69)

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

A friend who knows of my love for D.H. Lawrence recently bought me two books: a first edition, fifth impression of the 1929 pamphlet Pornography and Obscenity and the 1934 book Pornography & So On which includes the former essay and then expands upon the thesis ending with several poems on the subject. The subject, of course, can not be in doubt in either case. Having been censured and accused of writing pornography frequently in his career, Lawrence takes an understandable interest in the subject.

“We take it, I assume, that pornography is something base, something unpleasant. In short, we don’t like it. And why don’t we like it? Because it arouses sexual feelings?
I think not. No matter how hard we may pretend otherwise, most of us rather like a moderate rousing of our sex” (10, P and O).

Lawrence  proceeds to try to uncover the root of the perversion of sexual feeling in English and American society. How such words as ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’ are used given that the meanings are so nebulous. He tracks it back to the 15th century, at the time when syphilis, or ‘pox’ began to ravage England and the royal families in particular. The recoiling in horror that ensued caused a fear and sense of ‘dirtiness’ which implanted itself deeply into the psyche of the affected societies.

“And pox entered the blood of the nation, particularly of the upper classes, who had more chance of infection. And after it had entered the blood, it entered the consciousness, and it hit the vital imagination” (63, P & So On).

The morbidity of fear, Lawrence argues, shuts us away from our own bodies. And once a feeling of shame or dirtiness sets in, all natural desire and comfort in one’s body becomes, as Lawrence puts it, “a dirty little secret.” The problem is not the words, the problem is the loss of individual instinctual relation to ourselves and eachother.

“The reaction to any word may be, in any individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? […] Now if the use of a few so-called obscene words will startle man or woman out of a mob-habit into an individual state, well and good. And word prudery is so universal a mob-habit that it is time we were startled out of it”(9, P and O).

“Word prudery,” I love that. Now that swearing isn’t so universally shocking the politically correct mob has moved in, but that’s another subject. In Pornography & So On the second essay explores the consequences of our profound fear of consequences (I would add in here that women have several thousand years a head start on fear of consequences that, one could argue, may credibly account for the perceived, but proven false, difference between men’s and women’s capacity for arousal). Lawrence takes up those consequences as they pertain to the sad state of the visual arts.

“We have become ideal beings, creatures that exist in idea, to one another, rather than flesh-and-blood kin. And with the collapse of the physical, flesh-and-blood oneness, and the substitution of an ideal, social or political oneness, came a failing of our intuitive awareness, and a great unease, the nervousness of mankind. We are afraid of instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us. […] Intuitively we are dead to one another, we have all gone cold” (70). 

Without naming him, Lawrence takes Clive Bell and his “Significant Form” to task, as well as other theorists of art, for a shallowness and blindness that misses the sorry truth of the state of art in modern times. Dripping with indignant sarcasm he writes:

“So the prophets of the new era in art cry aloud to the multitude, in exactly the jargon of the revivalists, for revivalists they are. They will revive the Primitive-Method brethren, the Byzantines, the Ravennese, the early Italian and French primitives (which ones, in particular, we aren’t told): these were Right, these were Pure, these were Spiritual, these were Real! and the builders of early Romanesque churches, Oh, my brethren! these were holy men, before the world went a-whoring after Gothic. Oh, return, my brethren, to the Primitive Method, lift up your eyes to Significant Form and be saved— “(93).

I don’t think Lawrence intends to be funny, but sometimes he does make me laugh with his passionate exhortations and implorings. They are over-the-top to most people’s sensibilities, but then, that may be his very point, and I really cannot help loving his consistency, good sense, and absolute commitment to his philosophy which makes healthy sense to me. In “Introduction to Painting,” Lawrence writes of the masses as “grey” people. Cold and grey. He points to Cézanne’s apples as the only instance he can find in which an artist truly paints the thing, is not afraid of the physical thing, and paints the whole thing in all its “appleyness.” I have written of Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne’s apples here, but I will end here with one last quote because I think it captures what he is on about. Lawrence doesn’t want cheapened, shallow, fleeting feelings. He argues for a true connection, without fear, between real bodies, the whole body, all the way around.

“Oh, be an apple, and leave out all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your mind and all your soul, which we know all about and find boring beyond endurance. Leave it out—and be an apple!—It is the appleness of the portrait of Cézanne’s wife that makes it so permanently interesting: the appleyness, which carries with it also the feeling of knowing the other side as well, the side you don’t see, the hidden side of the moon. For intuitive apperception of the apple is so tangibly aware of the apple that it is aware of it all round, not only just of the front. The eyes see all fronts, and the mind, on the whole, satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side” (123).

Plaster of Canova's Cupid and Psyche from The Met. The detail, which to me holds the appleyness is in that missing shoe...for some inexplicable reason Canova eliminated that powerful expression of the instinctive imagination in the finished sculpture at the Louvre.

Plaster of Canova’s Cupid and Psyche from The Met. This unfinished detail I photographed looks to me as a sandal, I can’t tell if Canova never intended to have a sandal, but to me, that (mis?)perceived detail of only one sandal left on her feet holds the appleyness. I was so excited when I saw it. Nevertheless, what seemed to me a powerful expression of the instinctive imagination, is absent from both finished sculptures at the Louvre and The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Joy Made Even Less Heavy

“Speaking has to do with the reality of things only commercially: in literature, one contents oneself with alluding to it or disturbing it slightly, so that it yields up the idea it incorporates.”
—Stephané Mallarmé trans Barbara Johnson, Divagations (208)

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I spent the final week of my lunch breaks during my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The American Wing. The above photo I took  is of a painting by James McNeill Whistler titled Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret. While the title does not exactly flow from the lips it goes a long way to get the viewer to look with the intentions Whistler thought were important. I find it amusingly heavy-handed. The label accompanying the painting insisted that M. Duret was given the props for purely aesthetic reasons and not to “imply a narrative.” I have no reason to doubt this assertion, I only can say—well good luck with that! The painting is extraordinary in every way, including (all intentions notwithstanding) implying an intriguing narrative. And, I will argue, I am able to love it all the more for that very implication. My narrative is my way in.

“Verse, which, out of several vocables, makes a total word, entirely new, foreign to the language, and almost incantatory, achieves that isolation of speech; negating, with a sovereign blow, despite their repeated reformulations between sound and sense, the arbitrariness that remains in the terms, and gives you the surprise of never having heard that fragment of ordinary eloquence before, while the object named is bathed in a brand new atmosphere” (211).

So too, I say, goes art. Mallarmé famously wrote “that everything in the world exists to end up as a book” (226), by which I think he points to the gestalt which occurs as a natural outcrop of  art (visual, performative, literary). The parts of verse are merely informative—to paraphrase Whistler: a study in black ink on white paper—but the whole is truly bathed in a brand new atmosphere. And that is where, when one is absorbed by literature, dwells in front of a painting, or is transported by music, that, is where the art lives and where the soul desires to go. How one gets there is the story each work of art must share in its own way.

“Something else…It seems as if the scattered quivering of a page only wants either to defer or to hasten the possibility of that something else” (187).

An organizing principle of the mind is creating narratives. The wonder of it all is that art (in all its forms) must, if it is successful, give, not specifics, but ambiguities in order for there to be room for a narrative of the reader, viewer, listener. I don’t mean that a thing can’t be representational or more (or less) overtly relate a story, Whistler’s painting is a perfect example of an absolute representational painting maintaining allegiance to strict ambiguity. Perhaps many people, even now, know who Théodore Duret was, but what does it matter to the painting as a work of art? It is a wonderful painting because of the beauty, (and in my narrative) the darkness lifted by the insouciance of the ridiculous and very pretty fan and pink shawl, the sober expression on his face betrayed by the slight forward thrust of the hips in an attempt to preserve some imposed masculine sense of pride. Just who is the owner of the shawl and fan? I get to decide.

Just as one crosses out certain words that, in me, take the place of what once was a heart; it would thus be a mortal sin to serve them badly. A fool blabbers on without saying anything, and to so the same with out any notorious taste for prolixity and precisely in order not to say something represents a special case: mine (122).

There are of course varying degree of a narrative that an artist can give, but even in the most traditionally defined narrative works, I would argue, there is room left for the individual’s imagination to shape that narrative as their own mind and heart dictates. Without that there is a failure to communicate—a void—which is different from nothing. A void is too slick for there to be anything to grip, or to make meaning. It is the something that nothing emits that captures our imaginations and holds onto our hearts.

Silence! Sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its significance on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a dare, to translate! (140)

*title from p. 208: “Under those conditions arises a song, which is joy made even less heavy.”

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)

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Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”

Free from the Tyranny of Erudition

A good work of visual art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy: to use art as a means to emotions of life is to use a telescope for reading the news.
—Clive Bell, Art, (29-30) 

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Clive Bell’s book  Art (preface dated 1913)expounds on his ambitious attempt to articulate his theory of art. What is art? is the question to which he thinks he knows the answer. That last sentence makes it sound as if I don’t think he does, but in fact his thesis is completely acceptable if for no other reason then it defines without revealing. While my edition of the book is nearly 300 pages long, he comes right out with it—Art, Bell states, is always this one thing: significant form. Lines, colors, shapes, and material must always relate significantly to each other in order to precipitate the aesthetic emotion. Bell is a very clever fellow, of course, so I can not argue with a man that defines art so succinctly while leaving the puzzle of the how and even the why untouched. In fact, this is his cleverness, because, of course, must know what one is dealing with—significant form— in order to consider the Yes or No.

Be they artists or lovers of art, mystics or mathematicians, those who achieve ecstasy are those who have freed themselves from the arrogance of humanity. He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it. (70)

There is a lament in the museum world that goes something like this—do you know that the average museum go-er spends less than 30 seconds in front of a piece of work?—Whenever I hear that I want to say—hold on a minute. Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Too short to waste more than 30 seconds, or whatever the amount is (30 may be generous), on a No. We feel it right away. The aesthetic emotion hardly requires seconds to register. Yes or No? Or as Bell cheekily puts it: “there are two types of art: good and bad.”

Yet, though the echoes and shadows of art enrich the life of the plains, her spirit dwells on the mountains. To him who woos, but woos impurely, she returns enriched what is brought (35).

What is in the substantial form that moves me? Or doesn’t. By feeling the Yes or No we can then be on firm ground to approach the why. And that is not to say that one can not come to be moved differently as one’s emotional intelligence becomes refined and freed, but, alas, Bell has a rather low opinion of most people’s ability to really feel, and therefore understand, a good work of art. As with a writer who with “nothing to say soon come[s] to regard the manipulation of words as an end in itself” (222), so too the artist can make a perfect representation of an object or display impressive control of materials without touching anything true in the realm of Art, he/she makes mere “labels” by which many viewers get hopelessly distracted:

The habit of recognising the label and overlooking the thing, of seeing intellectually instead of seeing emotionally, accounts for the amazing blindness, or rather visual shallowness, of most civilized adults (79).

Bell blames the culture of intellectual appreciation. Coming at a work of art through the intellect, through a learned (ruinous!) and well-intentioned study (the road to hell is paved!) of art history and methodology is a useless and damaging endeavor as far as he is concerned. What does history have to add to a work of art’s quiddity? He doesn’t say it isn’t potentially interesting in itself, but the objects and images in a painting, the historical placement of a painting—these are details that mean nothing to its value as a work of art. It is the emotion that transports one away from the plebeian, away from the emotionless news report of the image and/or its happenstance— perfectly rendered or not.

Just as the aesthetic problem is too vague, so the representative problem is too simple. (67)

Unapologetically and amusingly bitchy at times, Bell’s book is refreshingly blunt. Despite the fact that he is an intellectual, he argues for something more from artists and art lovers alike. The mind is not enough, one must invest one’s heart, truly and purely.

He who goes daily into the world of aesthetic emotion returns to the world of human affairs equipped to face it courageously and even a little contemptuously (292).

Ecstasy awaits.

*Title from p 263: Let us try to remember that art is not something to be come at by dint of study; let us try to think of it as something to be enjoyed as one enjoys being in love. The first thing to be done is to free the aesthetic emotions from the tyranny of erudition.

**photo: Marble relief of the Three Graces. Roman, mid-imperial, ca. 2nd Century A.D., The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Three Graces—Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance)—bestow that which is beneficent in nature and society: fertility and growth, the arts, and harmony between men.”

Proletarians of Pain, Unite!

“It came so unexpectedly that I virtually needed years in order to recognize what had happened. I was confronted with a radically new, completely unexpected event: love” Lars Gustafsson, The Death of a Beekeeper (52).

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Just as a person’s ears always perk up when they hear their name being spoken, my ears are always tuned to titles of books. In a passing conversation the writer John Hawkes was mentioned and highly praised. Intrigued, largely by my ignorance of him,  I read his book The Blood Oranges. Written in the seventies it is a startlingly beautiful read of an odd sort. Thinking about it now I am aware that the vivid visual aspects and dreamlike sensuality still pervades and clings to the pith of my skin. I mentioned the book to a friend in the hopes that I might have someone to talk to about the compelling read and he in turn mentioned what he was reading. For fun we decided to read each other’s books, “You read mine and I’ll read yours,” I said. This post is about his.

“What is it? The possibility of love in our bodies. The presence, the possible presence of another human being.

   The humiliating, constant reminder that loneliness is not possible, that such a thing as a lonely human being cannot be.

   That word “I” is the most meaningless word of the language. The dead point in the language.

   (Just as a center always must be empty.)” (116).

Written in 1978 and translated from the Swedish by Janet K. Swaffar and Guntram H. Weber, The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson is an extraordinary book. A man’s life is reviewed, in a subtle way, through the various notebooks that he left behind after his excruciating death by cancer. A cancer that he refused (by burning the letter from the doctors) to confirm with certain knowledge. The possibility of hope combined with the extremities of his increasing physical pain expose a clarity of his own understanding of himself and the life that he has led.

“The human being, this strange creature, hovering between animal existence and hope” (133).

Now, I should confess (as I have on other occasions) that I am of Swedish descent (among other strains). As I read the book, and as I fell in love with the book, I wondered if there was something in my DNA that caused me to respond so intensely. The protagonist (who says he is called Weasel) comes to terms with his cold remove through his quiet questioning of his conduct in his own life. The fear of wasted time: “perhaps I should have used the time better,” he muses—and I smile. I don’t know that I would love a man such as Weasel, but I know I understand him.

“Not far from here there is a young lady, almost a girl still, who is very pretty and has a good figure. I had never seen her from a distance of less than fifty meters and found her quite attractive. Her face had strikingly vivid color, and her large eyes were very dark, her neck long and white. For a long time I had been tempted by a delicious urge to fall in love with her” (29).

Gustafsson (according to the end notes), wrote five novels that were variations on what were, as he saw it,  narrow aspects of himself: each extrapolated and examined as an alternate life. What if I had been more like this or that, if I had done this or that? This version is told with a particularly appealing (to me) dry Scandinavian humor, a keen sensitivity to the natural world, and a tender longing to belong to one’s body and to one’s own life—the story is deeply moving.

“Not that the pain has gotten stronger, but rather the pills, e.g., my nervous system, have somehow lost their grip on it.

   It has given me a body again; not since puberty have I had such a strong awareness of my body. I am intensely present in it.

  Only: this body is the wrong one. It’s a body with burning coals in it.

   And then of course the hopes” (23).

Perhaps it is that reckoning, through pain, in which one’s physical corporal presence is an inescapable truth, where we must look for meaning. Where are we? Here. In our bodies. We think we are in our minds, and we are tempted to become masters of hiding all the pains disassociated with our bodies until we no longer even know how to look at one another—how to love one another. While assessing his marriage and subsequent divorce, Weasel realizes that he and his wife had an implicit understanding to never look at one another: “looking at one another was forbidden, I mean, really looking at one another.” This of course begs a question which Weasel’s series of notebooks answers frankly:

“Naturally one has to ask oneself what is behind such an agreement.

   I believe it is pain. A kind of primeval pain which one carries around with one from childhood on and which one dare not reveal at any price. Much more important than the presence of the pain is keeping it hidden” (43).

It is through this uncowardly examination of a somewhat cowardly life that the beauty of the tragedy is forged. It is interesting, or not—as Gustafson refrains: (a banal story, no, not a banal one at all.) that both The Blood Oranges and The Death of a Beekeeper are primarily concerned with love. The former is love lived for love’s sake: distilled and even abstracted or depersonalized in an oneiric haze, while the latter is love not lived, and yet both books foment a feeling of hope—there is always hope. And so, there is always love, here, in our bodies: in mine, in yours. Our human need to examine our lives, to understand and find meaning are deeply provoked by the stories—the books—that we share and read. They never provide the answers. There are no answers; there is an urge to hone in, to refine and define, but ultimately the living is all that really matters. And yet, as Clive Bell wrote, there are two kinds of art (and I will add—novels): good and bad. The good ones stay, they dwell in you and you dwell in them.

“When reality confronts us with unusual situations (for example, when an anticipated rivalry doesn’t materialize and instead there is a love which excludes us), we first reach for these emotional stereotypes common to novels.

   They don’t give us much footing. They make is lonelier than before, and head over heels we fall out into reality” (59).

*Title from page 16

amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865--67)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67)

And he said to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Canto III)

According to Signor Dante, there are many sins that will consign a soul to one ring of hell or another. Perhaps that is reason why, upon reading his Inferno, I was most fascinated by the Ante-Inferno.

These wretched ones, who never were alive”

Of course one assumes that the murderers, adulterers, avaristic, and blasphomous will suffer the Mintors’ exacting evaluation. But the merely meh? Those that simply lived without praise or disgrace? Seems a little harsh.

“Now you must cast aside you laziness,”
my master said, “for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.
Therefore, get up; defeat your breathlessness”
—Canto XXIV

“Defeat your breathlessness.” Well, okay; that may have to be my new call to arms…. In a rare move I decided to purchase a copy of Dante’s Inferno rather than check it out of a library. But pecuniary considerations pushed me to a used bookstore where I spent some time comparing alternate translations. In the end I went with a cheap paperback version which had the Italian on the verso and English on the recto. The translator was Allen Mandelbaum. But what did I know? I simply compared various lines and made my purchase based on the version that moved me more.

O souls who are so cruel
that this last place has been assigned to you,
take off the hard veils from my face so that
I can release the suffering that fills
my heart before lament freezes again.”
(Canto XXXIII)

I began reading my purchase at my friends’ house in Brooklyn (a lovely, dear-to-me couple who have generously allowed me to sleep on their couch half the week during my summer internship at the Met where I walk by the incredibly life-like Ugolino sculpture every work day [Ugolino was in the ninth circle]). It wasn’t until I was asked who had done the cover art that I looked at the title page and became aware that the person who did the interior illustrations (not the cover art: that was Hans Mamling) was a professor of mine, Barry Moser.

In a kind of strange synchronicity, very soon after that discovery my relationship with the eminent Mr. Moser suddenly blossomed from a professor/student admiration into wonderful friendship. I mention that for two reasons: 1) I love the crazy coincidence of accidentally reading the book he illustrated and then at the very same time I am reading it being contacted by him. And 2) full disclosure. Although—I’d have high praise for the drawings regardless of knowing, or not, the artist.  When I saw his depiction of the Centaur from Canto XII my jaw dropped. My only thought was how could have anyone ever drawn a centaur any other way? It is truly menacing.

But back to Dante. By some powerful art of contradiction, Dante (through the exquisitely talented Mandelbaum) describes the utter despair and terror of hell with the most beautiful language.

“I’d utter words much heavier than these,
because your avarice afflicts the world:
it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” ( Canto XIX)

I know a few corporations and politicians who should hear those words. It is quite a fun read. The book evokes so much thought about the nature of good and evil, heaven and hell, eternity and finality. But,  there is also a strange avarice for, or fetishizing of punishment. The excessive nature of the punitive measures are almost absurd. And many of the crimes are….well…My son Augie was confused how anyone doesn’t wind up in hell. He’s only twelve and can see no one he knows would not be headed there. But more than that, I began to wonder things like: what does it really mean to be cold, wet, and damp (as in the third circle meant for gluttons) forever? If there is never anything other? No means of comparison? No hope of comparison? What does that mean?

Perhaps it is just a failure of my imagination to imagine a constancy of that level of pain that does not incapacitate or cause death, but so then, if you are already dead…then what?  If you are already dead and suffering eternal pain what does pain or fear mean?  Fear of what? Not death, obviously. It’s all gruesome and terrifying but, as Augie put it, “After a while you’d get the routine. It’d just be boring.”

*title from Canto II: Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.

What Is It In Me?

Elizabeth_Sparhawk-Jones,_Shoe_Shop,_1911

Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.