Monday, July 17, 2017


Re-read Camus’ The Fall, probably the first time since the 1980s. I read it first around 1974, I think, and it was part of the background I draw on when I recall my high school reading. The formative stuff. My recollection of it—the bar, the quays, the bridge—played a part in the initial “Axis and the Fallen Angel” composition of around ’76 or so. Reading The Fall now, I see in it the seeds of my conviction, fully ignited by reading Nietzsche in those days, that the purpose of life was a kind of mental clarity about one’s state—I suppose I would’ve accepted “spiritual state” as a good enough phrase for what I had in mind. Key to that intention was a need to do away with the teachings of the Catholic church in the name of something else.

In The Fall, the speaker’s insistence on judgment—to give it and to escape it—plays into that need. One could accept that one would be judged “sinful” by the arbiters of that law one was raised with, but the effort was to free oneself of that view, to find another way. The greatest risk was that one had wasted one’s time, one had squandered one’s gifts—and life, with whatever talents and intelligence one possessed, was the chief gift. One was indebted, from the start, but how to repay that debt? For the artist, the way was clear, in a sense: use one’s talents to the best of one’s ability. But there one encounters a question: how do we determine “best use,” how do we understand—or even perceive or conceive—what “talent” compels? It becomes “a blessing and a curse,” as the song says; it becomes a test of one’s mettle all along the way. One reason I want to go back to the scene of starting out is because I want to see again where I went wrong—but, even more so, I want to reshape the past for the sake of the present and possibly for a different future.

Returning to The Fall interests me because I know that the speaker’s insistence that “we need slavery” is something I grasped at some basic level back then—in two senses. One was with Rimbaud’s “we are slaves, let us not curse life.” A complex statement that says our slavery is built into the system we serve. We have our assigned tasks and we let them determine our identities, to a large extent. We are given money for this and so we cease to call it slavery—we are “free,” we say, to choose. But if we are honest, we know how little choice we have. Somewhere in that notion, as I received it, was Nietzsche’s “What, a great man? I see rather the play-actor of his own ideal.” That line, to me, undermined even the unique life of the artist or leader. Such figures were still slaves to an ideal, an intention, that governed them. We might wade through the biographies of everyone whom talent or wealth or wisdom supposedly freed until we come at the moment when they are ruled by something—call it love, call it God, call it need, call it—maybe even—justice. It doesn’t matter. It’s an ideal that shapes that person’s acts, making them, at best, an actor—pretending they “have it,” the ideal—at worst, a puppet, an automaton compelled by the ideal to—and here’s where Camus comes in—make excuses. For we all fail our ideal. And so must own up to it, or take it out on others. “No excuses ever, for anyone; that’s my principle at the outset. I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance. With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing . . . .  In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty. You see, in me, très cher, an enlightened advocate of slavery.”

So we come to the other sense of slavery—as the state of those who require masters, or a master. In other words, the Hegelian master/slave dichotomy. To me, coming from Catholicism, God was the ultimate master and we his slaves because he owned us—having created us for his own reasons. The Christian sense of this debt was simply that we should love Him, worship Him, do His bidding to the extent we could perceive it. But if that master is removed, then mastery itself becomes the task: to master oneself, to make of oneself a master to be loved. To the master who achieves this, perhaps, the mass of mankind would willingly be a slave. But the master? What kind of freedom is his? It’s the kind of freedom (from masters) that Camus’ Clamence calls “a chore . . . a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.” The master enslaved to his mastery.

This is not only the artist enslaved to his own ideal of mastery—of, perhaps, preaching a message to the masses via art—but also the task which Camus will imagine as the rock of Sisyphus. Pushing the rock up the slope, Sisyphus masters gravity; letting it roll to the bottom and pursuing it, he masters himself. But he is eternally enslaved to that struggle. There’s no freedom through tasks. Freedom from all tasks—that, I suppose, was the tact I took. The freedom simply to Be. To be, not only as “finale of Seem,” but Be as the only acceptable slavery. For one must exist. Camus also argues for the acte gratuit of suicide, as a gesture of mastery of the moment, and over life itself—which some find, no doubt, in the taking of other lives. But it should be clear that in the philosopher’s oubliette—or what Camus’ speaker calls “the little-ease” (a medieval torture confinement)—we are only concerned with the life we were given. (If one lets oneself become an executioner of the life of others one is indeed defined by the task, by the fact of lives one can end until someone or something ends one’s own life. Needless to say, all such acts are distractions—as is sex and appetite—from the existential emptiness at the heart of the endeavor, any endeavor.)

Granted, art or war—or maybe the art of war—are alike in their valuing a skill set that must prove itself again and again. At some level, the exercise of these skills may be an end in itself, but don’t we—the spectators of the world historical cases these exercises establish—want something more? Some like to speak of edification, but that’s a mighty abstract idea. Don’t we want, really, a rooting interest? A sense that there are stakes and that our hero-warrior or hero-artist or hero-ruler may fail mightily or succeed greatly? But in what lies that success or failure? Renown? The eyes of the multitude upon the acts, and the judgment—always the judgment of someone from somewhere—that it was “worth the time,” “worth the candle,” worth—if it must come to it—the whole world. And into that “world” we place the crying babies of need, and the misused and abused women and men, and all those who have shackled their fortunes to the side that lost, and all those who danced in the streets with the side that won, and all those who never knew comfort and all those who squandered riches untold, and all those who struggled to improve their lot or the lot of others, and those who broke every rule and yet thrived, or who reviled their betters or abased themselves for preference, or who lived pious, quiet lives, exulting in God, or who threw all caution to the wind and gave themselves over to every sensual pleasure and pain. “All” are subsumed in this Battle Royale of one against the very principles of existence.

Thus existentialism chez Camus.

Monday, April 3, 2017


What I’m after is a form of autobiography via criticism, or vice versa, or both. The specifics of my life as the basis for my access to the ideas I promulgate, but those ideas, taking their reference from the world around me—via reading, listening, watching—become a critical encounter with how art shapes a life. Not as an artist, but as audience. How collective that achieved view will be may be the problem, for most readers. The unique position of the speaker must include the reader in the thought, even if never consciously speaking for her at least necessarily speaking to her. Let’s call it, as a joke, a “speaking likeness,” for my words—in a manner of speaking—will shape my thought and my thought will, if well-expressed, find its “likeness” in a listener.

What has long been clear to me is how lazy I am. To work at something doesn’t suit me much. The “one-on-one” relation has always engaged my sensibility best. I like an audience but I don’t trust its collectivity. A roomful of individuals is hard to conceive—hard to address—as “one.” And yet—in teaching—that’s what comes to hand: the points to be imparted have to assume minds ready to receive them. And yet most of my necessary learning was gained by reading, not listening to the oral explanations of others. Though putting things into words, mostly in exchanges between or among a very few, played a significant part in the later stages of my education. What set me apart, in college, was that I was older and had already made up my mind about many critical matters, based on my own exposures, and wasn’t solely taking my cue from or repeating the teacher. Also, I read more—had read more—than was assigned. It’s hard to find an audience of such ready youth today and yet one must imagine it, if only to break silence and speak.

I hope I’ve got past seeing criticism as “somewhere to dump all my negativity” (though sometimes I am still tempted). If so, that began in earnest in college, when I wrote with a will to the intelligence of the professor of the course, and continued into all the critical writing I’ve done since. And, yes, sometimes I presumed myself to be explaining something even the prof—to say nothing of a general audience—missed or failed to appreciate. In the writing found in literary journals there is much that is too glib or too personal to suit my taste and yet there is much good writing and many good ideas. The trick is to avail oneself enough of the collective voice so as to get a hearing but without simply uttering the same ideas already received. It’s not novelty one wants so much as necessity. But that’s hard to account for if one’s only real struggle is against time. “Necessity” in such a case may stem from nothing more than wanting to put the record straight, to have one’s say, to color the air while it lasts. So be it.

Which, of course, pretty much describes my sense of the lyric, of poetry as simply a way of saying. The necessity of poetry—of poetic speech—has always been, for me, an approximation of a state of being—more than a state of mind—a way of knowing what is happening “where the meanings are,” as Dickinson has it. But the meanings, as my voice will have it, are always struggling to be indicated. There’s no simple task of calling a spade a spade because language is already fabric or sound or machine or wave; it’s never just a tool or a task. We inhabit it, we wear it, we imbibe it. We put it to uses, but those uses, in poetry, become highly selective, furtive, questioning. But questioning is no way to write a lecture or essay or review. One must use language for the task of clarifying and rendering, of explaining and arguing, of defining and making distinctions, of, maybe, charming and amusing, but not remaking the terms for the sake of wayward intention. Still, something in the waywardness of intention is what I would keep in my essays and, now and then, when a work merits it, in my reviews. Sometimes—and I want to trust this more and more—it’s the leap one makes from a given jumping-off point that matters, not the path one took to arrive there.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


When I think back on different regions of time, it becomes a task to differentiate each in terms of the “standard feeling,” “the overall dimension,” “the primary cadence,” “the leading mood.” I don’t know what should be the exact phrase because I’m not sure exactly what I mean. The easy assumption is that what I am aiming to differentiate is primarily biological, that it has to do with “age”—but what, precisely, is age? If I could answer that—a tendency, a consciousness, a feeling, an appetite, an affection, a supposition, an awareness—then I might get closer to what I mean. I know that the limited perspective that shapes “a time” exists “for a time”—that’s perhaps a tautology except that the difference between the two uses of the phrase “a time” is at stake. “A time” is une durée—a period, which might be suggestible by received ideas, such as “adolescence,” “maturity,”—but such “times” have no force of lived character; they are empty formulas. “A time” is some wrinkle in the surface, some grasp of a space between two whiles, maybe a before and an after. A way of saying that “the time” of first understanding emotional life as inflected by Shakespeare exists for a certain period in youth and no matter how many times “Shakespeare” is returned to, or re-encountered, in later life, the “time” of Shakespeare dates from, and takes impetus from, those first encounters.

To follow that sense of “a time”—the time of first love, for instance—and for “a time”—the time of the space between high school and something like adulthood, the “time” of some months in 1978, for me. Bearing in mind that to elicit that “time” requires attention to what was present in the world at that time. To my thinking, which has never been particularly concerned with the particulars of “the times,” with the fashions and the fads and the “best of” the year, “a time” takes its form from how it is shaped by the passing show. Thus no slavish sense of what was popular or immediately recognizable, but still some sense—which should become more crucial as time passes—of what was inescapable, what was necessary. The point, in selecting cultural markers, is to make them speak to each other and to one’s personal “time,” not simply in the generic tones of the culture at large. We are dealing with episodes, events, “acts” which, as with theater, must be staged with a certain setting. For each moment, its necessary dramaturgy.

I do have a tendency to think in decades, to look for tendencies that are observable for “a time” –roughly 5-10 year increments. But to make more of the lived characters of such “events,” the duration is shorter, more focused. So rather than give in to my “spanning” nature (always useful for a critic), I have to concentrate on more discrete increments. The building blocks of the psyche. So, in each case, fidelity to the “event” puts it in a time for “a time.” It’s not about retrospect, ultimately, I’m just realizing, and this is key. It’s not about shaping this “me,” this speaker, by means of what has gone to build it, an edifice of the self. It’s more a question of isolating moments that would be isolated, that must be acknowledged, analyzed, unfolded, unpacked, explicated, as being moments in the “before and after and during.” At such “a time” it was necessary to feel or see according to x. At such a time, that became the causal basis of what must follow, at least “for a time.” The dialogue between moments or acts, then, is the all-in-all. It’s not to arrive at denouement but to remain “in dialogue,” and, at times,  “in camera.” To remain in place, in a time, for all time.

This, if achieved, is something other than “a history” or “an autobiography.” It is an auto-critique, perhaps, or a lyric critique. But why waste time labeling it? The object is not more attainable for being named. The requirement is a conception, is conceiving a perception, a point of view as a position arrived at via time, not static and determinate, but shaped by the pressures of memory and reflection. “Lyric critique,” though, because the process of articulation is not explanatory but evocative, not a telling but a rendering, an inhabiting, a display. Yes, a composition, as in a tableau or scene. Playing live, like a lecture. A reading.