Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Details: Proust, van Eyck, Nabokov, et al.

This week I've been thinking about details in the arts. I'm thinking of the intricate layering of Bach's powerful, divine music; the almost painfully realistic details of Jan van Eyck; and the sprawling, nearly neurotic prose of Proust. The small image of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) to the left does the masterwork no justice. Click the image or view the image at this location. Zoom in on the image, spend time grazing over every piece of it, and, above all, savor the fine details. This is an oil painting on wood panel, and Jan van Eyck has obviously given much attention to detail: look at the fabric of the foreground characters' clothing, look at the chandelier, look in the mirror! I would post a picture of one of Bosch's triptychs, but looking at both van Eyck's picture and Bosch's would effect a sort of Stendhal syndrome that wouldn't allow you to read the rest of my post!

In his Cornell University lecture, Vladimir Nabokov urged readers to give themselves over to the authors words. Good readers take in and process and feel and see and hear and smell every detail because good readers recognize that the author has taken time to use her or his creative genius to construct a world the reader can live in. In fact, Nabokov views writing as a medium of connection between reader and writer. The two parties, through the world the author has created for the reader, can meet at the top of the mountain and have a conversation. So, the more refined the details are, and the more we as readers take in these details, the more realistic and powerful this mountaintop communication between reader and writer, or observer and painter, or listener and composer, will be. Is too much detail gratuitous and superfluous? Well, look at van Eyck's painting again and ask yourself if it would have the same power with less detail. The same theory, in my opinion, can be applied to literature.I've also been reading Stanley Fish's latest book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, the basic premise of which is that good readers and good writers (to allude back to Nabokov) love sentences. And it's true. I've never thought to focus on sentences as the objects of my literary affections--usually I refer to really enjoying an author's style (form, tone, etc.)--but Fish is right. Words by themselves are discrete objects wandering around looking to join with one another to establish meaning. Sentences string words together in such a way as to construct meaning. So when it comes down to do it, a writer's merit can be measured by her or his ability to write sentences. And those sentences--thinking in terms of content--work to create details that paint a picture that tells a story. Sentences, then, are time capsules of details, waiting for the reader to discover them.

Some call him trite and others call him genius, while still more call him mostly boring with a chance of sunshine. I call him a master of his craft. He sets out to capture a world he once knew in all its vivid details, which flood his mind as he lies on his sickbed in his sickroom, writing out the final moments of his life. This is far more than the psychoanalysis equivalent of free association (Henry Miller's Tropic of... books come to mind when thinking of disjointed free association; William S. Burroughs's fragmentary "cut-ups" too). This is an artist's ability to reach down into the depths of the human psyche and survey the strange elusive lands against the details that weave together the diorama of everyday life. Whenever I think of details, Marcel Proust comes to mind. Instantly. It's an association as tightly coupled as the associations Proust himself describes when he tastes the madeleines and lime blossom tea. Let's take a moment to enjoy Lydia Davis's superb translation of the most popular moment in Proust's magnum opus (the original French version of Proust's first volume, Du Coté de Chez Swann, is available for free on Gutenburg):

But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.

This is, in fact, to be a defining moment for Proust, who is attributed with voluntary (or Proustian) memory. But this is a small taste (pun intended) of Proust's ability to take a single action or object and meditate on it sentence after sentence, clause after clause. And, really, this is a very minor example; it just happens to be a portion of his work one cannot omit. Further along in this first volume, the reader encounters details of musical pieces and several paintings that will give you quite a literary workout. As most know, his prose is very demanding of the reader: there is very little dialogue, and there are subordinate clauses that stretch sentences for pages, shifting and tuning a deep meditative thought until Proust qualifies it with a single verb and ends the whole mini event with a bang. This is, of course, captured better in the original French, but as I've already mentioned Lydia Davis's English translation does justice to Proust's form. And she doesn't use British slang like some of the Penguin translators of the subsequent volumes.

But details aren't limited to the prose heavyweights. The iconic minimalist himself, Ernest Hemingway, does not eschew details as a result of his minimalist style; he just packages the details a little differently than, say, Proust or Milton. If we want to explain it in formal terms, we might say the difference can be described as between hypotaxis and parataxis, where Proust's writing exemplifies the former and Hem's the latter. In parataxis, we are given what Stanley Fish refers to as additive sentences. That is, we just keep adding to and adding to, without subordination. Consider this excerpt from "The Big Two-Hearted River, Part I":

The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. [...] He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight.

Short, clear sentences with simple words. Taken from their context these sentences seem pretentiously banal--I've heard at least one person say that Hemingway, at this point, was just writing whatever because he'd secured an audience. That is, I suppose, Hemingway has established an ethos that allows him to ruminate everyday occurrences to a captive audience without care. I don't pretend that the above snippet or the entire story is without vulnerability to being construed as such, but banality happens to be the point of the details here, and Hemingway was almost insane about his style, sometimes spending hours writing only one paragraph that he was satisfied with. The onslaught of details wrapped in Hem's trademark sharp, cutting, raw, terse sentences, in the additive manner, move the reader headlong through the story. Then, here and there, Hem simply drops in one of Nick's thoughts, usually without a narrative indicator such as "he thought," which allows the story to produce the perfect simulation of a man alone in the wilderness with only his thoughts. Through not only detail after detail, narrative descriptor after narrative descriptor, the reader is able to feel the full arch of human emotion, from Nick's being content with the simplicity of Nature all the way to Nick's anxieties about the independence of Nature from humanity. Note: You'll really need to read both parts of "The Big Two-Hearted River" to feel these two spectra concerning Nature, but you'll get my formalistic points no matter which story you read.

I've often heard readers' complaints that follow a pattern of "I don't need three pages describing a sunset" or "Why does this writer feel the need to weigh my mind down with exhaustive biographical exposition for a minor character?" (the psychoanalytic critic in me always stirs at this latter complaint!). There's also the common writing advice that urges authors to write only what's necessary, which ends up being an interesting paradox with most artists and seems to reveal the chasm that separates high and low art. In the world of cinema, Michael Haneke comes to mind. He is constantly berated for annoying, pointless lingering and empty space, while at the same time Haneke states that he "shoots only what is necessary" (I have no citation for this, and I'm not being graded for a change! Seriously though, check out this essay for the reference). Typically what happens is the two sides of the argument--those who herald the meticulous details and those who deride them--settle on the fact that writers like Proust are writers' writers and auteurs like Haneke are filmmakers' filmmakers. In other words, only an aspiring writer could admire Proust. I believe the fact is that there are no facts. We might do as well to argue over euthanasia or capital punishment because it's a battle of subjectivity. All I can offer is my opinion, and my opinion is that details can be savored just as the otherwise boring bits of everyday life can be savored. We need only to stop, settle ourselves, and yield to the artful details all around us.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Freud's Uncanny in the Arts

My two favorite essays of Freud's are "Creative Writers and Daydreaming" and "The Uncanny." The latter essay is packed with interesting thoughts and examples, but I will limit the scope of what Freud terms the uncanny to encompass that which at once repels and attracts us. In some cases, repels may be too strong a word, but I mean repel in the sense of a negative psychological response. The uncanny, therefore, is that which arouses fear/suspicion and intrigue. It's a feeling perhaps best attributed to fans of horror: the paradox of enjoying the state of being frightened. And Henry James's novel, The Turn of the Screw (1898),--itself a terrific psychological horror novel from the classic canon--is a perfect subject for Freud's theoretical uncanny.

In grad school I criticized The Turn of the Screw using Freud's theory of the uncanny--not to say that I am the only one who has done this by any means. The debate over whether the "entities" in James's novel are real or not is as pervasive in the literary community as Achebe's war on the racism of Joseph Conrad. The book is more of a novella, and it's a good read whether you're reading it for leisure or "for serious"[1]. (Some consider it James's most accessible work, so it's a good entry point to his oeuvre.) There is definitely validity to the argument that the "ghosts" appear as a result of the protagonist's sexual repression, but, of course, this limits the work to a predominantly psychoanalytical reading. It is ripe for much wider inspection. The point in the context of my post is that James's novel is a perfect example of the uncanny. We, the audience, and the protagonist, experience exactly what Freud describes: something that frightens and entices us.

In visual art, a couple of paintings come to mind. In this sense I am associating the uncanny with aesthetics. That is, the uncanny is exemplified in these two pieces insofar as the pieces are beautifully done works that portray dark content. The first painting is, as you can clearly see, an execution of the Lady Jane Grey, who was executed on account of high treason in London. But the work positively attracts the eye in its rich use of color, shading, and lighting. Notice how the lighting obscures some of the figures in the background, giving a sense of foreboding--yet it is undeniable that the painting is nicely done and attractive, despite its content.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833, oil on canvas

And again with Munch's work (below). Most are familiar with Munch's popular piece The Scream. In Evening on Karl Johan (a street in Oslo), the eye is attracted to the nightmarish illustration. Here, unlike Delaroche's painting, reality has been skewed into surreality. At first glance we ascertain that this is a simple street scene, but then the eye registers the skeletal faces, and, ultimately, the lone shadowy figure who walks against the grain. It is both familiar and unfamiliar.

Evening on Karl Johan, Edvard Munch, 1892, oil on canvas

Let's turn to classical music. The following three pieces share properties of Freud's uncanny in that the music is both beautiful and hauntingly mysterious. It evokes a fascination with something darker, something unknown. It is only necessary to listen to the first minute of each piece to understand what I'm saying. Note: You will need to crank your volume in order to hear all of the low subtleties.

Schubert's "Unfinished" 8th symphony

Debussy's "La Soirée Dans Grenade"[2]

Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" 6th symphony

Again, I am limiting Freud's complete theory of the uncanny, so if you're interested please do yourself a favor and give it a read. It's an interesting theory that gives us a way of observing and discussing our fascination with the macabre in the arts[3]. I really appreciate the efforts of psychoanalysis applied to the arts (i.e. psychoanalytic literary theory) because it makes sense: art is produced by and concerned with people, thus it follows that the same theories we apply to analyze people--whether mentally ill or struggling through a hard time--are applicable to the arts. On the other hand, I do acknowledge that some of what psychoanalysis gives us tends to be either too far-fetched (i.e. theoretical; not validated through experimentation) or too concerned with sexuality; but the efforts of the field cannot be denied their overwhelming plausibility most of the time[4].

In terms of, specifically, psychoanalytic literary theory, there's no better Freudian out there than Norman Holland. His books Literature and the Brain and 5 Readers Reading are among the best in literary criticism, and his "handbook" for Literature-and-Psychology is an indispensable resource. If you find that the sources (Freud, Lacan, etc.) prove too "out there," give Holland a try. He has done extensive research and studies, especially in the realm of literary interpretation, and has an uncanny[5] ability to break the wealth of psychoanalytical theories into palatable arguments.

The next time you find yourself disgusted but unable to look away, consider it a brush with the uncanny!

[*] Including footnotes to this post is an homage to the late David Foster Wallace.
[1] "For serious" is intended to pay homage to Chuck Palahnuik.
[2] Some people say that Stanley Kubrick stole this motif from Debussy for several musical scores, including The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, both of which could be included in the discussion of the uncanny.
[3] Macabre is probably too strong a word, as is horrifying, terrifying, frightening, etc. But, by this point, you get what I'm saying. Feel free to use "not happy" as a substitute for just about every other adjective I've used in association with the uncanny.
[4] "...[O]verwhelming plausibility most of the time" is a great example of being critically correct.
[5] I couldn't resist.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life Aggrandized: Milton, Wagner, Cézanne

Recently I picked up the Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s two epics of Greek mythoi, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Having read the Butler prose translation and some verse translation back in high school (Fitzgerald myabe?), I knew what to expect as far as content, but Fagles proved a powerfully poetic translation that reminded me of Picasso’s words:

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Greco-Roman mythology, in general, aggrandizes life in its pagan, i.e. pre-Christian, purpose of explaining humanity and the world around us. Ancient epic poetry in the vein of Hesiod and Homer is pedantically seeking to convey moral conduct and sound philosophies, while at the same time laying cosmological, philosophical, theological, and ethical foundations. —yes. But aside from the didactic elements of Homer’s epic, the works are largely entertaining. Normal, everyday, banal life is taken and aggrandized to the point that a thrown spear in the midst of battle is not merely a thrown spear—it is a spear with an insatiable thirst for mortal bloodshed—a spear that, though it vibrates in the ground, still lusts for the leg at which it was aimed. What better way to escape normalcy than to read of Olympian gods zipping around and conspiring just as much as the Acheans and Trojans engaged in battle below? A narrative build upon a scale that involves the entire oceanic realm as a god and an absolute ruler of the gods who blasts the heavens and the earth with lighting? And to think, the whole series of events is triggered because of some crankiness and misogyny between Achilles and Agamemnon! We’ve all had bad days, but have thousands of people be slain because of your tantrum?

And so it was, during the course of my devouring the Fagles translation of The Iliad that I began thinking of Picasso’s quote (above). For a while now—and especially because of grad school—I’ve been in the habit of constructing substantive arguments (or, if you rather: defenses and apologias) for the arts. But I feel the need to take a deep breath and remember the crux of the l’art pour l’art movement: art for art’s sake. If for any other reason for its existence, art allows us to rinse the dust from everyday life, be it music, a painting, or a piece of literature.

Accepting this argument, we can then begin to consider the supreme aggrandizement that “powerful” art affords us. What I mean by powerful art is the art that comes out of a need to achieve new heights and culminates in a production of grandeur that is impossible for the audience to deny. To highlight what I mean when I say powerful art, I introduce one example from each of the arts (“the arts” here is, of course, not meant to be definitive): John Milton, Richard Wagner, and Paul Cézanne.

John Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton’s entire biography surrounding his poetic life is one imbued with a fascination with power. In some cases it’s quite shocking. For example, his first English work (Milton was fluent in Latin and Greek, and produced many such works early in his life) “The Nativity Ode”: Not only is it significant that Milton associates his first English work with the birth of Christ, Milton also goes so far as to place himself as arriving before the three wise men and delivering a hymn to the baby Jesus. As the French would say: Zut alors! And from there Milton went into a self-prescribed scholarly retirement. He proclaimed that he would produce an epic work far greater than those before him (no easy feat considering those before him include Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Spencer, and Shakespeare). He took a vow of celibacy in exchange for divine power from God Himself. And, lo and behold, he produced Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, works that were both a retelling of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) and a form of theodicy (justification of God’s actions). (By the way, the juxtaposed picture is an engraving by Gustave Doré, who also produced engravings for Dante’s epic work The Divine Comedy.)

Richard Wagner, the individual, is not someone you want to be acquainted with too closely. Phil Goulding refers to him as a “vile human being.” He was a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, arrogant, a braggadocio—you get the idea! I consider him the Norman Mailer of classical music. He is a wretched individual and you want to despise his work, yet the work’s merits cannot be denied. Like Mailer, who created literary doorstops (long novels) that seemed too long to appreciate but ended up being incredible, Wagner spent much of his effort constructing his magnum opus, “The Ring” cycle. This is an operatic cycle of four parts: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The work is not only grand in scope but it places backbreaking demands on its performers. It is absurd to think it would actually be undertaken by performers or enjoyed by an audience (it is not a work that can be performed in a single evening). But, not only is it still performed and enjoyed today, a special opera house was built just for the work in its day! In fact Wagner himself conceived and advocated an entire special festival (Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany) just to showcase his works. And talk about life aggrandized, “The Ring” cycle draws on a range of epics and deals with mythology eschatology! Give the cycle, even its overtures a listen. It doesn’t take a trained ear to experience the genius and the power of this work.

And now on to Paul Cézanne. I posted a picture of Rubens’s “Prometheus Bound” last week that could be considered more relevant to this post due to its content, but stick with me here. Aside from his impressionist works of still life, fruit, landscapes, etc., there are Cézanne’s “bathers.” The above work is “Les Grandes Baigneuses” from 1898-1906, and I want to draw attention not so much to the content but to the actual dimensions of the work. The canvas is something like seven feet tall and over eight feet wide! Not only do these dimensions set it apart from his other, smaller works, but “Large Bathers” (a common moniker) is generally considered Cézanne’s finest work. Interestingly, Charlie Rose references Cézanne’s drive to produce a physically large work during his interviewee David Foster Wallace. Rose is comparing Wallace’s own magnum opus, Infinite Jest (itself an exhaustive/profound whopper of a novel), to Cézanne’s work, asking if Wallace felt he needed to create a grand work not only in depth of thought but in actual size. In his usual self-effacing way, however, DFW manages to slither out of the feminist-inspired arguments that he is, indeed, imposing his phallus on the world. Ironically, both artists, Wallace and Cézanne, seem to be expressing sexual timidity toward women in their works, but I’ll stop there before diving into critical digression, which would negate the whole purpose for starting this post.

These examples highlight life aggrandized in different ways, but the mode is always artistic. The artistic mode is a vast one that doesn’t end within the bounds of any or all of the three examples. I am reminded of Kerouac’s On the Road and Michael Hrebeniak’s book, Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form, wherein Hrebeniak uses “mystic heightening” to describe some of Kerouac’s literary devices. Mystic heightening is Kerouac’s way of aggrandizing life. In On the Road, Kerouac does not merely see the Rockies, he mystically heightens them and sees them through “mighty visitations.” Of course, what is going on here is pathetic fallacy, but it doesn’t end there. And with Kerouac, life (or the life given to personify inanimate objects) is always one extreme or the other: high or low. But there is always a powerful divine pulse that drives his narratives and works to permeate realism with power.

Whether you’re listening to a piece of music, gazing at a painting, or reading a work of literature, remember that the artist used his or her talents to wash the dust of normalcy from themselves. And because of their efforts, we can do the same.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

William (Possessed) Faulkner

Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

The above quote is taken from a Paris Review interview with William Faulkner around 1956. Sure, it displays the sexism of the 1950s, but that was all leveled and reconstructed through efforts in the 70s and 80s, right? Can we thank Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, Hélène Cixous, or is there still a lot of work to be done in the “rewriting Freud” arena? Well, I think we can all at least agree that the issue is as proliferated as the television in America.

In any case, I’m not advocating the heavy-handed brash machismo of Faulkner’s comment. Au contraire: I’m simply using the quote to catch your attention. What I really want to point out is that Faulkner’s interview is nothing short of inspiring for aspiring writers. Especially now, as it seems to me there’s a new push for writers to be critics and theorists and formulaic geniuses. What ever happened to the writers like Faulkner and Kafka, who were driven to write? These guys wrote because the need to write loomed larger than the need to be understood or accepted (by critics, fellow artists, et al.). Faulkner plainly states that the true artist does one thing: s/he writes. The true artist does not follow a theory—and certainly has no time to read critics’ reviews. The writer has only time to write.

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

But I also do not intend to glorify Faulkner as a literary hero without faults. Consider the exchange between Faulkner and Hemingway (my own paraphrase from, I think but probably not, Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself):

Faulkner: He [Hemingway] has never been known to send a reader to the dictionary.
Hemingway: Poor Faulkner. Does he really believe you must use big words to convey big emotions?

I love it when literary heavyweights exchange jabs! And what’s more? Spend some time thinking about the two arguments here in light of the fact that Hem’s The Sun Also Rises, or his short story “Up in Michigan,” is as genius as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. But they’re both different. They use different forms and devices. So who’s right in the exchange? Neither one of them! That’s the beauty. True genius is not following Hem’s Iceberg Theory, nor is it following Faulkner’s James Joyce-inspired stream of consciousness technique. No, it’s writing because you have to write. Stop wondering how you will compare to others. Stop considering how your work will look under the myriad theoretical lenses out there.

The more important argument in Faulkner’s interview is that, if you’re a good writer you will only improve with each moment spent writing. If you’re a writer, you only have time to write.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Oraison du soir" par Rimbaud

Oraison du soir

Je vis assis, tel qu'un ange aux mains d'un barbier,
Empoignant une chope à fortes cannelures,
L'hypogastre et le col cambrés, une Gambier
Aux dents, sous l'air gonflé d'impalpables voilures.

Tels que les excréments chauds d'un vieux colombier,
Mille Rêves en moi font de douces brûlures :
Puis par instants mon coeur triste est comme un aubier
Qu'ensanglante l'or jeune et sombre des coulures.

Puis, quand j'ai ravalé mes rêves avec soin,
Je me tourne, ayant bu trente ou quarante chopes,
Et me recueille, pour lâcher l'âcre besoin :

Doux comme le Seigneur du cèdre et des hysopes,
Je pisse vers les cieux bruns, très haut et très loin,
Avec l'assentiment des grands héliotropes.

Evening Prayer (trans. Wallace Fowlie)

I live seated, like an angel in the hands of a barber,
In my fist a strongly fluted mug,
My stomach and neck curved, a Gambier pipe
In my teeth, under the air swollen with impalpable veils of smoke.

Like the warm excrement of an old pigeonhouse,
A Thousand Dreams gently burn inside me:
And at moments my sad heart is like sap-wood
Which the young dark gold of its sweating covers with blood.

Then, when I have carefully swallowed my dreams,
I turn, having drunk thirty or forty mugs,
And collect myself, to relieve the bitter need:

Sweetly as the Lord of the cedar and of hyssops,
I piss toward the dark skies very high and very far,
With the consent of the large heliotropes.
Reading this poem, I can feel the heavy ennui and the romantic tug vying with one another. Rimbaud's typical atmospheric (e.g. the weight of the tobacco smoke) and bathetic devices (excrement, pissing upwards, etc.) with pinholes of romantic sadness (the young poets stifled dreams and aspirations) give me the feeling of being both trapped and exhausted. At the end of the poem, reality (i.e. the need to urinate) cuts in on the dreams. But, then again, is Rimbaud arguing in favor of indolence? The first line ("I live seated...") could indicate a positive argument for ennui, an emotional state which the Symbolists were indeed in favor of; but other areas in the poem express longing to do something. Of course the two can be the same: viz. the poet at work! In any case, I think the poem definitely expresses an array of complex and conflicting emotions that the artist battles with in the face of reality. Perhaps, in the exhaustion of trying to "understand" or "cope" with reality, we end up just getting three sheets to and urinating in the wind!