Random Readings 4

In the Poetics, Aristotle discusses his observations on the literary forms of his day. He breaks them down into three main types: the tragedy, the comedy, and the epic. Aristotle deals mostly with tragedy and comedy, since he sees them as the two extremes of artistic representation. A tragedy, he argues, depicts men as being more noble than they really are, whereas a comedy depicts them as being less noble than they really are. He discusses also the origins of ‘poetry,’ which he ascribes to an innate propensity to imitation in people, and also an instinct for rhythm. His view of literature is a very static one; he states that, concerning its development, tragedy “found its natural form and there it stopped.” He describes the development of these literary forms up to his own time, but foresaw no future development.

In his discussion of the nature of the tragic form, which he describes as an “imitation of an action,” Aristotle outlines six parts of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. He then goes deeper and describes the elements of plot, saying that every good plot should have three characteristics: a reversal of the situation, which is termed peripeteia; recognition scenes; and a “scene of suffering.” When discussing spectacle, Aristotle reveals himself to be a fan of special effects, although, as with many critics of the modern cinema, he acknowledges that great special effects can’t make up for a weak plot, for “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.”

Aristotle continues, detailing the aspects of the proper structure of a tragedy, outlining characteristics that seem like common sense today: a play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it should be neither too short nor too long; and should contain no arbitrary actions. This last characteristic he describes as unity, in which every part must be necessary to the whole work; there should be no extraneous scenes. He says that the action following every point in the plot should be determined by probability or necessity, and not by the whim or desperation of the writer. Aristotle maintains that drama should be believable, even going so far as to suggest using real people’s names to lend a sense of realism, but he also holds that a writer should always go for the “probable impossibility” which follows the story’s internal rules, rather than the “improbable possibility” which stretches credibility beyond what the audience will accept.

From his many descriptions and examples, Aristotle seems to be writing the Poetics because he is depressed by all the badly-done shows out there, as well as the paucity of good ones, which shows that, even after 23 centuries, some things never change.



Random Readings 3

Paul de Man seems to be playing a lot of games in his 1973 essay “Semiology and Rhetoric.” In the opening paragraph, he begins a discussion of the movement to bring issues external to the text into consideration by comparing the state of literary theory with the state of the world at the time. He mentions the siren call of the ‘60s for “relevance,” and how it was being replaced by a desire for “reference.” He uses such terms as “politics” and a “foreign policy” of literature. He draws on the culture at large for his metaphors to argue a deconstructionist point. Is that self-contradictory in some sense? Again, with the later example built around Archie Bunker, he seems to be playing the game of being the iconoclast, but then turns around and rolls out phrases like “the vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration,” thus assuring himself of his membership in the intelligentsia. Also he lays down a tongue-twister with “the grammar allows us to ask the question, but the sentence by means of which we ask it may deny the very possibility of asking. For what is the use of asking, I ask, when we cannot even authoritatively decide whether a question asks or doesn’t ask?” Classic deconstructionese. The theorists all seem to be trying to be more “suggestively unfathomable” than the last guy. The passage where he suggests that under critical deconstruction, “the literary critic would become the philosopher’s ally in his struggle with the poets” flies right out of Plato’s Republic.

I also found the passage interesting in which de Man asserts that “by reading the text as we did we were only trying to come closer to being as rigorous a reader as the author had to be in order to write the sentence in the first place.” The idea being that deconstruction has to adapt itself to the particular piece under consideration, so that deconstructing a poem is inherently more difficult than deconstructing a treatise on the theory itself. Another parallel to physics arises in this text when de Man discusses the fond wishing in the field for the reconciliation of form and meaning, which echoes, to me, the search for the Grand Unified Theory of the universe, the one equation that explains all the nuclear forces.

Stanley Fish starts his piece “Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes Without Saying, and Other Special Cases” with a little story, which means he could get a job writing for Newsweek. Fish tries to bring some much-needed humor into the academic community, and his essay is heavy on examples and light on theoretical discourse. I see a connection between his assertion that meaning always depends on context and the passage in de Man’s work about Charles Sanders Pierce, where he says that “the interpretation of the sign is not, for Pierce, a meaning, but another sign; it is a reading, not a decodage.” For Fish, it’s always a decodage of the context that gives a sentence its appropriate meaning and drives away ambiguity, as he argues that no sentence ever has one true meaning.



Random Readings 2

In Book X of Plato’s Republic, Socrates discusses with Glaucon the value of art in their idealized society. This also appears to be where Socrates explains his theory of how everything in the world is an imitation of some ideal thing which exists somewhere in heaven. So, for Plato, the idea of universals is very real. The abstract concepts of Good, Justice, Beauty, Table, Wine, and Toga really exist on some other plane of existence. And according to this school of thought, these planes of existence are in a strict hierarchy, with the ideal of “wine-ness” on the highest level; below that the wine that Socrates and Glaucon may have been sipping as they talked; and below that the image of wine that might appear in a painting; and below that the description of some wine that might appear in a poem. Each successive level gets further from the Truth and deeper into imitation.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im Aussermoralischen Sinn,” also discusses the notion of universals or ideal reality, but from an opposing stance. Nietzsche argues, rather vehemently, that we create the ideals in our own minds. They have no reality of their own in some special space, but are products of our mental processes. He uses the example of leaves. Even though no two leaves are identical, we ignore the minute differences and create a mental category based on the similarities, which for us constitutes the ideal of “leafness.” Therefore, something that seems to have the qualities of a leaf, we will think of as a leaf, whether it is a leaf on a tree, a flower, or a shrub. Nietzsche believed that we perceive these “forms” instead of the actual object, and make sense of the world, therefore, through generalization of experience.

Plato and Nietzsche, then, appear to have held opposite world views. Plato thought the generalized form was the true reality and everything on earth is a representation of some singular “real” object, whereas Nietzsche thought that everything on earth was singular unto itself, and we create the generalizations so that our limited minds can cope with infinite diversity.

I found Jacques Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” to be very interesting, because he seems to be putting forth a kind of “theory of relativity” for philosophy. Derrida attacks the Newtonian ideal of absolutes as it is manifested in the structuralists’ insistence on the existence of a center within the structures of philosophy. Derrida states, in his roundabout way, “that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or play of signification henceforth has no limit.” He later also states that discourse “cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.” What Derrida seems to be saying in these and other passages is the same thing that Einstein said when he argued that there are no privileged reference frames, no absolute time or absolute space against which everything else can be measured. Derrida seeks to have the structuralist view of philosophy and mythology swept away as was the Newtonian view of the universe. Derrida seems to be seeing a quantum-mechanics view of mythology and philosophy where uncertainty, approximation, and point-of-view are the ruling ideas. I even saw a parallel between something and the mysterious “quantum connection,” but I’ve forgotten what it was. I didn’t write it down, and now it’s gone. I feel a bit like Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern. Or was it Rosencrantz?



Random Readings 1

In “Cratylus,” Plato again discusses the notion of an abstract reality that we humans perceive only through imitations of the ideal, and that perspective lies behind the dialogue in which Socrates discusses the appropriateness of names. Applying the idea of imitation, the argument states that names should imitate what they represent, in which case languages should be constructed on some complex system of onomatopoeia.

Socrates uses an analogy that relates letters as the units of a name to colors as units of a portrait. Since the colors on the canvas represent the colors of the live subject, then letters should imitate the true nature of the thing named. He argues that since certain letters appear in words of a certain type, those letters must somehow be representative of the nature of the things so named. So if the letter R, for example, appears in words such as “run,” “rotate,” “revolve,” “race,” “transfer,” “rocket,” “rocking chair,” “restless,” “rumble,” “careen,” “throttle,” “thrust,” “scratch,” “shear,” “trip,” “trembling,” “strike,” “crush,” “bruise,” “break,” “crumble,” and “whirl,” then the letter R must somehow represent the notion of movement or change in state. But I find this reasoning to be ridiculous.

Both Socrates and Plato are obsessed with this idea of representation, which stems from their belief that everything exists in some kind of unearthly ideal state and therefore everything in the world is a representation of something else. All things are therefore idealized, even the mysterious “name giver,” a concept similar to the story of Adam in Judeo-Christian myth -- that is, the first man who named everything he saw. Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Course in General Linguistics, argues against the ideas held by Plato, insisting that there are no pre-existing ideas and that naming is an arbitrary process. Whereas Socrates and Cratylus argue whether an inappropriate name can be a name at all, Saussure posits that no name can be intrinsically better than another, for it is in the difference between words that significance arises, not within the words themselves.

It is interesting to see the movement in attitude concerning the certainty of truth among different writers in different times. Plato’s speakers argue from very definite positions, the validity of which they are completely convinced. Saint Augustine, in the fourth-century treatise On Christian Doctrine, remains firm in his Christian convictions, but questions his own abilities and qualifies nearly everything he says. He puts forth his realization that metaphor and analogy aid understanding, but still struggles to use “plain words” and to express himself as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. In the modern era, Saussure calls the Platonic kind of thinking naïve, and is intent to go beyond a standard of “reasonableness” to find evidence to support his convictions. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, in works such as 1963’s “The Structuralist Activity,” puts himself at a great distance from his subject and deals with it on a very objective plane.



Nightmare Sisters

Nightmare Sisters
A Halloween Essay

The nineteenth century was a time of great social change in both the United States and England, creating an underlying atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Industrial Revolution was changing the very nature of society, accelerating the pace of everyday life, and the very pace of change itself as well. In England, the Reform Bills passed by Parliament drastically altered the traditional relationship between the government and the governed. The United States also faced a constant reordering of the political landscape as parties came and went, and political divisions widened, all building up to the Civil War. New social causes also demanded attention, especially the struggling movement for women’s equality. The rift between religion and rationalism grew, as the old ways of thinking were challenged. New philosophies were changing the way people looked at life, as medical breakthroughs were changing the way people looked at death. All this change caused a tremendous amount of anxiety, which was then manifested through the cultural subconscious of poetry.

Just as a day filled with anxiety can cause nightmares, the wondrous Victorian age had its own dark Zeitgeist: a fascination with the nightmarish that is reflected in the poems of two quiet and retiring yet passionate women, Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts, and Christina Rossetti of London, England.

Beyond merely incorporating ghastly imagery into their works, both Dickinson and Rossetti cast whole poems as nightmares themselves, taking the reader with them into a dark world of horror. In her poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson creates an inner world that moves from a numbing dread to a pulsing terror which drives the consciousness to find respite in madness. The poem begins following a steady beat: the heavy footfalls of the mourners, echoed in the funeral service itself:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,

The tolling of the bell fills her entire being, as if the universe were pure sound and she pure hearing, until the poem, like her Reason, collapses. The ineffectual struggle of the self against the nightmare is seen again in “‘Tis so appalling — it exhilarates —,” in which Dickinson also deals with the irresistible attraction of the truly horrific, that strange part of our nature that, though confronted with something utterly repugnant, prevents us from turning away. In the final stanza, Terror is shown to be an irresistible force:

Others, Can wrestle —
Yours, is done —
And so of Woe, bleak dreaded — come,
It sets the Fright at liberty —
And Terror’s free —
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!

This tone is reminiscent of the common nightmare experience of helplessness in the face of some often-unapparent threat, the point at which existential angst becomes panic. This angst is ever-present and inescapable, according to “Bereaved of all, I went abroad —.” In this sixteen-line nightmare, Dickinson’s speaker travels far, but is pursued by the anthropomorphized grave wherever she goes.

I waked to find it first awake —
I rose — it followed me —
I tried to drop it in the Crowd —
To lose it in the Sea —

In Cups of artificial Drowse
To steep its shape away —
The Grave — was finished — but the Spade
Remained in Memory —

Neither solitude, society, travel, or even drugs can eliminate the awareness of her impending terminus or dispel the gloom that shadows what life she has.

At the age of 17, Rossetti composed a gloomy, desolate piece titled “The Dead City,” one of her longer works, which creates an experience that reflects many elements common in nightmares: corruption of nature, horrific discoveries, and the eerie sensations imagined when alone among cadavers. The nightmare begins with a dream of bliss that is then lost. While frolicking within an idyllic forest, the innocent narrator is transported into a vision of a city of the dead, populated entirely by unmoving, petrified corpses. First, her edenic surroundings become inexplicably corrupted:

Happy solitude, and blest
With beatitude of rest;
Where the woods are ever vernal,
And the life and joy eternal,
Without Death’s or Sorrow’s test.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Soon the birds no more were seen
Glancing thro’ the living green;
And a blight had passed upon
All the trees; and a pale sun
Shone with a strange lurid sheen.

She is transported to a city which, though beautiful and splendid, is devoid of life. within an opulent palace, the narrator makes her chilling discovery:

Many banquetters were there,
Wrinkled age, the young, the fair;
In the splendid revelry
Flushing cheek and kindling eye
Told of gladness without care.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Yea they were all statue-cold,
Men and women, young and old;
With the life-like look and smile
And the flush; and all the while
The hard fingers kept their hold.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And none broke the stillness, none;
I was the sole living one.
And methought that silently
Many seemed to look on me
With strange steadfast eyes that shone.

Like most nightmares, the weird vision abruptly vanishes and the narrator, like the reader, is at a loss to comprehend the “hidden mystery.” No interpretation is offered or even encouraged. Similarly, in her later poem “A Coast-Nightmare,” Rossetti refuses to reveal “the wordless secrets of death’s deep.” These secrets are revealed to her by “a friend in ghostland,” where “there comes neither night nor day.” She describes this ghostland, the home of her spectral lover, whose eerie presence haunts her continuously.

Without a voice he tells me
The wordless secrets of death’s deep:
If I sleep, his trumpet voice compels me
To stalk forth in my sleep:
If I wake, he hunts me like a nightmare;
I feel my hair stand up, my body creep:
Without light I see a blasting sight there,
See a secret I must keep.

As with Dickinson in “Bereaved of all, I went abroad —,” Rossetti here is inescapably haunted by the awareness of her own mortality. However they try to avoid dealing with that awareness, neither poet is able to shut out the whispers from “death’s tideless waters.” It is comfortless companionship, though. Despite the constant presence of the spectral figures, which often appear in large numbers, such as Dickinson’s mourners or Rossetti’s banquetters, the narrator is invariably alone, and images of isolation predominate in reference to the speaker. Nightmares are, after all, something that can be experienced only in isolation.

The poets take a step deeper into the darkness when they become the corpses themselves. Rather than experiencing the bleakness of death vicariously through ghoulish phantoms or ghostly lovers, they use their poems to directly face the fears of physical separation and emotional abandonment endemic in the age. In such a time of upheaval, even the most lasting concepts become in danger of being swallowed up, as Dickinson explores in “I died for Beauty —but was scarce.”

I died for Beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room —

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —

However, Dickinson also uses the same stance to step away from the abstract concepts associated with the human condition, such as Truth and Beauty, and to instead explore the moment of death in all its blandness. The death in “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —” is the most mundane experience imaginable. It is a moment suspended between the chaos of life and the intensity of the afterlife. The speaker has accepted that life is at an end, and in the final moment, as consciousness fades, watches a fly bumbling about in the light. There is no real thought in this last moment, for thought has proven pointless. There is only the image itself, which is pointless as well. The poem is almost a nihilist hymn. Moving beyond the moment of death to her own ghostliness in “I am alive — I guess —,” Dickinson observes her own corpse:

I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — Commonly — it is —
So visitors may come —

And lean — and view it sideways —
And add “How cold — it grew” —
And “Was it conscious — when it stepped
In immortality?”

There is no connection to the body or to the nameless mourners left behind, only the observation of the physical details and the awareness of being on a different plane of existence. The narrator has been severed from her self, from her emotions, and exists in an infinite, yet seemingly empty, space.

Rossetti composed a similar poem when she was 19, entitled “After Death.” In the poem, she, too, has become disembodied and is observing the reaction of others to her lifeless body. Unlike Dickinson, Rossetti maintains in her narrator a link with the emotions of life.

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary, and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

Later in life, Rossetti returned to this theme, but more closely echoed Dickinson’s sense of alienation. In “At Home,” the narrator returns to her family home to observe the wake held for her. She finds her friends feasting, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. All their talk centers on the future, and not a word is spoken in remembrance of her.

Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
“Tomorrow and today,” they cried;
I was of yesterday.

I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table cloth;
I all-forgotten shivered, sad
To stay and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.

The poems written from the deceased standpoint by both authors put death in a new perspective, making it much more directly personal an experience. When another dies, one feels the sense of loss, but finds support nonetheless in other human relationships. How much more intense the loss, then, when the self dies, cut off from all sources of emotional support and cast into the netherworld of non-existence. The authors carry this further in showing that those they have left behind are emotionally distant as well. There are no great outpourings of grief or declarations of misery. At best there is polite curiosity, at worst indifference. Perhaps this is a reflection of the increasingly dehumanized state of the individual in society, or at least a premonitory dread caused by the rapid industrialization of two formerly agrarian nations. By the late 1840s, factory life had lost its original rustic charm and had mutated into its more hellish form. These poems of Dickinson’s are dated to the time of the Civil War, when even in sheltered Amherst, the shadow of death hung over people’s consciousness; not the peaceful bed-death surrounded by loved ones, but dying alone, far from home. Death had become an experience of alienation, and this new reality surely influenced the thinking of two educated and sensitive minds as Dickinson and Rossetti.

As the cultural conception of death was changing, it was important that it be understood, and an age-old method of coming to terms with the incomprehensible phenomena of existence is personification; thus, death became a character that frequented the nightmares of both poets. The best-known example from Dickinson’s works would be “Because I could not stop for Death —,” in which Death is the gentlemanly coachman come to deliver the soul into eternity.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility —

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

The movement is leisurely and pleasant, a very polite, proper transaction masking the macabre truth. Death is again characterized as polite in “Death is a Dialogue between,” as Death exchanges words with the Spirit:

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Death’s presence in Dickinson’s nightmares seems to be stripped of its dreadful qualities, and is instead characterized by a cool rationality. While Death is ever gracious, it is also soulless, reflecting its increasingly clinical aspect in society.

In the few instances where death is personified in Rossetti’s works, it seems to lack the terror normally associated with it, and instead carries only the suggestion of its nature. A distance has grown between death and life, and death’s power is only increased for being disseminated. In “The Ruined Cross,” the poet relates the tale of a girl’s journey down the road to her doom.

She might not pause upon the road,
Lest Death should claim his promised bride
Ere yet her longing was fulfilled,
Her young heart satisfied.

Death, while a palpable presence, offers only a vague threat to the girl, until it finally, quietly claims her in the end. In “Repining,” Death plays the role of the gentle guide, though he leads the narrator on a nightmarish journey to the land of the dead. Leading the narrator from her empty, lonely life, Death never hurries or admonishes her, but merely gives firm, but gentle directions. She is shown a thriving village buried in an avalanche, a ship destroyed by a sudden storm, and a city consumed by fire. The narrator receives no explanations from her guide, only stony silence. She repents her wasted life, spent waiting for death to release her from her heartache. Unexpectedly, however, Death merely sighs at this conversion, and shows her a battlefield strewn with

Ghastly corpses of men and horses
That met death at a thousand sources;
Cold limbs and putrefying flesh;
Long love-locks clotted to a mesh
That stifled; stiffened mouths beneath
Staring eyes that had looked on death.

But these were dead; these felt no more
The anguish of the wounds they bore.
Behold; they shall not sigh again,
Nor justly fear, nor hope in vain.

Death is revealed to be an ambivalent force, a source of terrible destruction to some and merciful comfort to others. Typically, there is no great revelation codified in the closing lines, for the narrator is simply overwhelmed by the experience.

Neither Emily Dickinson nor Christina Rossetti offered any guidance to their age on how to deal with the enigma of death or how to come to terms with its changing conceptualization, but rather they express the deep-seated alienation and ambivalence that surrounded the phenomenon in a time of fundamental social change. That death haunted the Victorians is clear, but it was a quiet, understated, though unmistakably sinister force, an awareness that hovered in the back of the cultural consciousness. These two women gave a voice, however unheard it may have been, to the dark terrors that plagued an agitated, anxious society. They were the quiet chroniclers of a culture’s nightmares.