Sunday, April 22, 2012

Unreasonable madness, part II: Artaud & the feral imagination

"Born to protest:" the "disciplined and feral, interrogative resistance"
of Antonin Artaud

Nobody has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented
except to get out of hell.

Actor, poet, playwright, artist, provocateur and innovative visionary, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is as infamous for his biography as his output. Institutionalized for nearly 9 years, a victim of over 50 electroshock treatments, Artaud was an outcast and drug addict who committed suicide at the peak of his creativity. The lucidity of his work, especially his vitriolic critique of society, is obscured by the extremities of his life. Like many difficult or dissident artists, he is marginalized. Below are excerpts from Stephen Barber’s incisive biography, Blows and Bombs (Creation, 2003). Barber’s text appears in quotations and Artaud’s in italics. Excerpts from Artaud's essay "Van Gogh: Suicided by Society" are further below, followed by excerpts from another anthology. As a postscript, some original Artaud-inspired poetry concludes this eclectic notebook.

“His work exists as a strange set of traces.”

“Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty – an artistic project that was designed to uproot culture and burn it back to life.”

“…he developed an attitude of complete resistance…”

“Artaud’s life sustains itself only through attack, in reaction to failure and humiliation.”

“Writing becomes a committed intervention which cracks censorship wide open…”

“Madness becomes raw material to be treated with great irony and great anger…[his] refusal undermines and unscreens notions of psychosis. It blatantly uses madness, puts madness to work…”

“It is this special sensitivity of Artaud’s writings towards a pervasive social complicity in individual repression…”

“…he possessed a magisterial and monumental capacity for reactivation and reinvention.”

“…a final clarity which is both disciplined and feral.”

I have need of angels. Enough hell has swallowed me for too many years. But finally understand this – I have burned up one hundred thousand lives already, from the strength of my pain.

“…the fragment – the ‘failed’ text…more vital and exploratory than the ‘whole’ or ‘successful’ poem…Artaud articulated his independence from and refusal of the coherent, unified aesthetic object. His fragments failed to incorporate themselves within a specific poetic culture; this intentional failure ensured that they would be banished into the territory of the self which was A’s only subject matter…A’s fragments are exceptional in their willed upheaval and contraction of the language of poetry and the imagery of the self.”

“…the incoherent, & inherently wild & vocal material of poetry must be exposed in all of its independent & explicit pain, so that its fragmented sounds can be given breath & life.”

“…he now wrote fluently of his language as being dangerous & volatile.”

If I drive in a violent word like a nail, I want it to suppurate in the sentence like a hundred-holed ecchymosis.’

I, always so restless in my body, I understand…that there is a lie to being alive, against which we are born to protest.

“Writing at the borderline between control and spontaneity…he directed his poetic language as fragmentary incursions into a territory of physical suffering and dispossession…the creative gesture was always doubled by its own loss & obliteration.”

“Artaud’s poetry ricochets between expositions of nervous pain & linguistic incapacity.”

I am in a state of possession, of negation…I want to have the strength to need nothing at all, to exist in a state of absolute disappearance…a solitude without compromise.

“ …he wanted to reconstitute the violence and independence of dreaming…a reinvention of cinema based around its visceral, transforming propulsion against the spectator’s physical reflexes and reactions…poetry of expulsion and refusal.”

“The force of Artaud’s film language emerges from its density. Elements are suppressed or subtracted in order to be articulated. Narrative is broken, while the image is pounded down to compact visual sensation.”

“…necessitate a transformation of the viewing position, and instigate resistance to the process of representation… [his] own position…parallels that interrogative resistance.”

The overlapping of images and movements will, by the conspiracies of objects, of silences, of cries and of rhythms, arrive at the creation of a true physical language based on signs and not words.

There is, in all poetry, an essential contradiction. Poetry is the grinding of a multiplicity that throws out flames. And poetry, which brings back order, first resuscitates disorder.

Jean Dequeker on Artaud: “Through the creative rage with which he exploded the bolts of reality and all the latches of the surreal, I saw him blindly dig out the eyes of his image.”

If you dug a little bit into the world of Breton with a spiked stick, you would find worms.

“In Coleridge the Traitor, Artaud created a vision of a virulent poetry composed of blood, mucous, cruelty and insurrection…In Artaud’s view, Coleridge had subsequently become scared of his poetic power and had, as a result, lost his claim…”

The true theatre has always appeared to me as the exercise of a dangerous, terrible action… Because the theatre is this crucible of fire…

of the writer, of the poet
is not to cowardly shut himself away…
but on the contrary to emerge
go outside
to shake
to attack
the mind of the public
if not
what use is he?

from Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society
(in Artaud Anthology, City Lights, 1965.)

And thus, demented as this assertion may seem, present-day life goes on in its old atmosphere of prurience, of anarchy, of disorder… of chronic lunacy, of bourgeois inertia, of psychic anomaly…of deliberate dishonesty and downright hypocrisy…
in short, of organized crime.
Things are bad because the sick conscious now has a vital interest
in not getting over its sickness.

And what is a genuine lunatic?
He is a man who prefers to go mad, in the social sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain higher idea of human honor...
For a lunatic is a man that society does not want to hear but wants to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths.

In every demented soul there is a misunderstood genius who frightens people and who has never found an escape from the stranglings that life has prepared for him, except in delirium.

Medicine is born of evil, if it is not born of disease, and it has even, on the contrary, provoked sickness out of whole cloth in order to give itself a reason for being…

The most important thing in the world to Van Gogh was his painter’s imagination, his terrible, fanatical, apocalyptic visionary’s imagination.

No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented,
except to get out of hell.

There are no ghosts in Van Gogh’s pictures, no visions, no hallucinations.
This is the torrid truth of a 2 p.m. sun.
A slow fertile nightmare elucidated little by little.
Without nightmare and without effect.
But pre-natal suffering is there.
It is the wet sheen of a pasture, of the flat surface of a wheat field
which is there, ready to be uprooted.
And one day nature will have to take this into account.
Just as society will have to reckon with his premature death.
For mankind does not want to take the trouble to live, to take part in the
spiritual elbowing of the forces that make up reality…

Only perpetual struggle explains a peace that is only transitory…

let him who once knew hot to look at a human face take a look at the self-portrait of Van Gogh…
Painted by an extra-lucid Van Gogh…
I do not know of a single psychiatrist who would know how to scrutinize
a man’s face with such overpowering strength, dissecting its irrefutable psychology
as if with a knife.

Perhaps the only one before Van Gogh [with this eye] was the unhappy Nietzsche who had the same power to undress the soul…

One day Van Gogh’s executioners arrived, as they did for Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe and Lautréamont.
Those who one day said to him:
And now, enough, Van Gogh, to your grave, we’ve had our fill of your genius,
and as for the infinite, the infinite belongs to us.
For it is not because of his search for the infinite that Van Gogh died…
he died from seeing the infinite refused him by the rabble of all those who thought to withhold it from him during his own life;
and Van Gogh could have found enough infinite to live on for his whole life-span had not the bestial mind of the masses wanted to appropriate it to feed their own debaucheries, which have never had anything to do with painting or poetry.
Besides, one does not commit suicide alone.
No one was ever born alone.
Nor has anyone died alone.

(Translated by Mary Beach and Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

from Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period of Antonin Artaud. (translated by Clayton Eshleman, Exact Change, 1995.)

“Antonin Artaud is one of the greatest examples in art of the imaginative retrieval of a life that was beyond repair.”

Thinking means something more to me than not being completely dead. It means being in touch with myself at every moment; it means not ceasing for a single moment to feel oneself in one’s inmost being…it means always feeling one’s thought equal to one’s thought, however inadequate the form one is able to give it.

“Anais Nin, in the audience [for the essay/lecture “The Theatre and the Plague”] described what happened:” He spat out his anger. ‘They always want to hear about; they want to hear an objective conference…and I want to give them the experience itself, the plague itself, so they will be terrified, and awaken. I want to awaken them. They do not realize that they are dead.'"

“Such support was immensely invigorating to the reengaged Artaud” [emerging from nearly 9 years of confinement. Financial support came in the form] “of a benefit auction from such writers and artists as Char, Joyce, Stein, Césaire, Sartre, Bellmer, Chagall, Picasso and Giacometti.”

“While Artaud cannot be called a shaman, there is a shamanic resemblance to his life and work… Shamanic quest, initiation and practice often involve…a spiritual crisis…Such a crisis can lead to a vision quest, which can be prolonged and excruciating…the novice must undergo a transformation involving suffering, symbolic death and resurrection.”

“Artaud enables us to reflect on a level of suffering and fantasy response to that suffering that has been traditionally repressed in the art of poetry.”

“In our exploded and wallpapered age, I have found that in Artaud the ancient, black springs of poetry are graspable… Artaud is the stamina of poetry to enact in a machine-gunned hearth the ember of song.”

The number of eminent artist colleagues (listed above) who contributed to support the maligned and abused Artaud is a clear measure of the esteem in which he was held. The excerpts from his essay on Van Gogh are even more relevant 65 years later. A prototype of the engagé “performance artist,” Artaud’s ambitious vision remains unrealized, despite his influence on every generation of artists to follow in his haunting wake. Defying convention with unflinching courage, Artaud bore the knife-edge tension of a life lived against the grain. Too easily dismissed, ignored or forgotten, Artaud’s voice is an essential witness to the dangers of conformity and corruption. His work is a vibrantly original example of the mind and heart and soul aflame in one body.

Fragments after Artaud

it wants to take us
over by any means
force or cunning or both and
numb our senses dull
us down to yawning
acquiescence till we give
up let go our guard and die…

it confuses elements
its failed
alchemy requires calculations
to cheat us
swapping cash for
flesh mixing ever
combustible creativity with
our volatile sensitivity
to fluorescent light

“Play upon your
pipes pretty artist”

this feral discipline
is too strange
to comprehend which
is why we’re
straightened out
cut off
jacketed in...

the visions
like the
of pain…

could one
a way
to steer
the Scylla
and Charybdis
of paralysis
and horror
(30-31.III.12/ R)

Unreasonable madness: Foucault’s "History of Madness"

What is the power that petrifies all those who dare look upon its face, condemning to madness all those who have tried the test of unreason?

Michel Foucault’s landmark work, A History of Madness and Unreason in the Classical Era, is a dense treatise. At once philosophy, history, sociology and psychology its central subject leads to the origins of the asylum, and the shifting sands around not only mental illness, but around poverty and criminality. Those three distinct subjects become objects inside the walls of confinement, and none more so than the “mad.” History of Madness traces that landscape of exile and alienation where difference – variously perceived as madness, unreason, eccentricity or the catch-all distancing distinction of ‘otherness’ – is separated, isolated and institutionalized, figuratively as judgment, literally as confinement. Foucault’s signal achievement is a painstakingly detailed portrait of the classical “Age of Reason” and its institutionalization of the so-called “mad.” It is possessed of a chilling sobriety that ripples forward through the troubled twentieth century, and resonates in a world nagged by related problems like prison reform. The specificity of Foucault’s work does not limit its application. He charts a sociological regression during an age of supposed progress. The ever-subjective categories of madness and unreason began as separate autonomous subjects and dissolved into a singular alienated, undifferentiated object, whose status was determined solely by the arbiters of the new democratic society whose freedom required protection from the threatening dangers of the criminal and the criminally insane, the “sick.” Foucault’s demanding work gathers momentum as it progresses and his singular perspective clarifies like a dystopian vista appearing in sharp relief after a long journey through dense fog. Brief commentary and original poetic meditations are interspersed with excerpts from the Routledge edition (2006), translated by Jean Khalfa and Jonathan Murphy.

The circle was therefore complete: all the forms of unreason, which in the geography of evil had taken the place of leprosy, and had been banished to the extreme margins of society, had become a visible form of leprosy, offering their corrosive wounds to the promiscuity of men… The age-old confusion about leprosy came to the fore once more, and it was the vigour of those fantastical themes that formed the first agent of synthesis between the world of unreason and the medical universe. They communicated first of all through the phantasms of fear, meeting in the infernal confusion between ‘corruption and vice.’

The new dream was of an asylum…where unreason would be entirely contained and offered as a spectacle without ever threatening risks of contagion. The idea, in short, was to build asylums equal to their true nature as cages. It was this same dream as ‘sterilised’ confinement that reappeared…

And that sick "dream" would continue to reappear under National Socialism, Stalinism, Eugenics and wherever power and fear coalesce under the disguised control of corporate ‘interest’ or ‘security.’

But in the anxiety of the second half of the eighteenth century, the fear of madness grew at the same rate as the dread of unreason, and for that reason these twin obsessions constantly reinforced each other.

A dialectic with rippling parallels from the classical age forwards, where Cartesian logic, in the name of enlightenment, stole power from the affective realm Romanticism failed to reclaim. The usurpation has been completed by industry, technology and blind allegiance to the so-called "free market" (which is to condemn blind allegiance rather than economic systems).

Madness became the paradoxical condition of the continuation of the bourgeois order, to which from the outside it nevertheless constituted the most immediate threat…

And in a light still dim, on the fringes of philosophy and medicine, psychology and history, with a naivety that all the disquiet of the nineteenth century and indeed our own age have yet to dispel, it proposed a very rudimentary concept of alienation… defined as the negativity of man, in which the concrete a priori of all forms of madness were to be discerned. Madness was thus placed as close to and as far as possible from man; in the place that he inhabits, and also in the place in which he loses himself, in a strange homeland where his residency was also that which abolished his being…

Enter the void
the space between
madness and unreason
the unsuspended bridge
degenerate and deranged
isolated in exile
a solitary plane
sublunary and distant
differentiated yet subsumed
by the darkness
that is both
boundary and expanse

Is it because a society begins to be afraid of the mad that it displaces them, and ensures they are kept in isolation? Or is it rather because they have taken on an autonomous identity, and occupy an independent space, that a fear of them begins to spread?

Like any proverbial ‘chicken and egg’ equation, the question begs the underlying issue prismatically reflected within it.

It is as if a ‘medical analytics’ and an ‘asylum perception’ never managed to overlap; and the classificatory mania of the psychiatrists of the past century probably indicates a renewed discomfort facing the duality of sources in the psychiatric experience, and the impossibility of any reconciliation between them. This was not a conflict between theory and experience…the known and the unknown: it was in a more secret manner a tear in the experience that we once had of madness, and which perhaps still exists today, a rent between madness considered by our science as mental illness, and all that it can give of itself in the space in which it has been alienated by our culture.

The tear in the fabric
long before the psychodynamic
split registers within any
collective unconscious or
‘other’ outlasting
attempts to demarcate
its reach or define its scope

…the century linked confinement to insanity ever more strongly…Subject and object, image and aim of repression, it was a symbol of its blind, arbitrary nature, and a justification of all that was reasonable and well founded within it. Through a paradoxical circle, madness finally appeared as the sole reason for confinement, while serving as a symbol of its deep unreason… confinement itself was a cause of alienation: …all that was most unreasonable, shameful and deeply immoral about power in the 18th century was represented in the space of confinement, and by a madman…

We have always repressed or alienated what we fear or fail to understand. The openness of freedom is a threat to anyone hording wealth, coveting power or seeking control. The distancing effects prompted by fear extend beyond the confining walls of insanity that caged so-called “immoral” or “disruptive” voice like De Sade’s. Poverty became another appendage of 18th century “unreason,” another “project” for society to control by the defining outlines of what would become “the empty forms” of positivism. Where “the ancient notion of hospitality” saw poverty and chronic illness as a communal responsibility and a challenge to be met by the moral ordering of the church, the classical era gave birth to the alienating notion of “individual responsibility.”

The limits of compassion were quickly reached…The social place in which sickness was situated was therefore entirely redefined...[and] fragmented…so that the sick could no longer be of concern to everyone, but only to their immediate entourage, as proximity in the imagination brought closeness in sentiments…Just as confinement was ultimately a creator of poverty, a hospital was a creator of disease…For the first time in the Christian world, sickness found itself isolated from poverty, and all the other faces of misery…Poverty became caught up instead in problems immanent to economics, and unreason disappeared into the deep figures of the imagination…And what reappears at the end of the 18th century is madness itself, condemned to the land of exclusion, like crime…in places haunted by the phantasms of unreason.

Foucault’s study has the bracing cumulative effect of a penetrating cold that chills to the bones. In reasoning that holds up to the light uncomfortable truths about democratic and republican economies, Foucault demonstrates why Marx should not be summarily dismissed. The “correction houses” where “every fragment of space took on the symbolic values of a meticulous social hell” grouped side by side capital offenders, the insane, libertines, and other undesirables. All were “prisoners” who “would do jobs of some use to society” and “those indispensable tasks that were harmful to health.” Foucault excels at such sobering double-edged diagnoses as this:

In this marvelous economy, work is doubly effective: it produces and destroys, as work necessary to society is born out of the death of workers whose disappearance is desirable…Freedom did not simply have a market value, it had a moral value too…This perfected vision thereby found a double justification: for the outside world, it was pure profit, as it was unremunerated work…Just as bourgeois society was beginning to understand the futility of confinement, and lose the unity of evidence that made unreason perceptible to the classical age, it found itself dreaming of a pure form of work – which was pure profit for this society, and death and moral submission for its outsiders – where all that was foreign in man would be snuffed out and reduced to silence.

From here on, Foucault’s study reverberates with startling clarity to any reader of the dissident’s code, from the empathetic victim to the “mad genius” artist to the sympathetic humanitarian. As the classical age gave way to the modern era and the industrial revolution followed the democratic movements in the Unites States and Europe, mental illness became not only a problem to be solved or shelved by confinement, it became positively linked to guilt and entwined with the shame.

Confinement marked out a limit beyond which scandal was deemed unacceptable. For the bourgeois consciousness, on the other hand, scandal became an instrument for the exercise of its sovereignty. Its absolute power was such that this consciousness was not merely judgment, but also a punishment in and of itself.

Just ask anyone who’s suffered discrimination or abuse at the hands of an individual in the form of the playground or corporate bully. The more insidious manifestation of abuse is in the oppressive forms of silence from the dominant group, the proverbial circling of the wagons and other like-minded control mechanisms to isolate and alienate the “outsider” or the “other.” “Different” has for too long been a thinly veiled insult, which makes Foucault’s study relevant to all forms of prejudice and bigotry. This makes him dangerous.

The asylum was to reduce difference, repress vice, and eliminate irregularity… [it was] a uniform domain of legislation, a place of moral syntheses…a prisoner of nothing but himself, the patient was trapped in a relation to the self that was the order of guilt, and in a non-relation to others that was of the order of shame…In comparison to the incessant dialogue between reason and madness that had marked the Renaissance, classical confinement had been a silencing.

Just further on, he exposes one of those control mechanisms recognizable to any student of dysfunction and codependency, not to mention the forms of abuse and oppression already mentioned.

We have already seen the means –and the mystification – employed in the therapeutic practices of the 18th century to persuade the mad of their insanity, the better to free them from it…Everything is organized so that the mad recognize themselves in the world of judgment that envelops them from all sides; they are to know that they are observed, judged and condemned. The link between the crime and its punishment was to be clear, and guilt was to be acknowledged by all…The asylum of the positivist age…is not a free domain…it is a judicial space where people are accused, judged and sentenced, from which they can only be freed…through repentance. Madness was to be punished in asylums, even if its innocence was proclaimed outside. For a long time to come, and at least until today, it was imprisoned in a moral world.

“Madness and Disorder” become inextricably linked with “social and moral order,” and remain so. Figurative dismissals of the “unreasonable” whistle–blower, or the “trouble-maker” complainant of compromised standards barely conceal the pernicious bond between fear and control. Foucault praises Freud, “who consented never to avert his gaze and his research from this link, and who sought not to mask it” (before criticizing the founder of psychoanalysis for his self-aggrandizing exploitation of the institution he sought to dismantle).

Psychoanalysis can untangle some forms of madness, but it is a perpetual stranger to the sovereign work of unreason. It cannot liberate or transcribe…what is essential in that work. Since the late 18th century, the life of unreason has only manifested itself in the incendiary work of a small number of writers such as Hölderlin, Nerval, Nietzsche and Artuad.

Writing at the dawn of the classical era, Dryden famously wrote:
“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Artaud is the subject of the next installment in this series of "unreasonable madness." Related essays on "madness," mental illness and the artistic temperament are below, in this writer's attempt to "undo the folded lie" even at the risk of repetitive sermonizing.

Postscript: A Foucaultean dream

In a dream
Michel Foucault
addressed an audience
I was in and bent
down low to the ground
as if to listen
to what it had to say

He then gestured
towards the woods
and beckoned us forth

Where do the lines
of unreason end
and madness begin?

Where do they intersect?

What dark realms
lie buried beneath
those crossroads,
what excruciating
secrets beg to
be discovered in
the shadows?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

War music for Havel and Logue

Now Hear This / Godot has not come – Havel has left.

Several generations of living Americans are familiar with the life of Vaclav Havel, who died last December. A famous world figure, humanitarian and political leader whose nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 led to the collapse of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, Havel was the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic. He was also a prolific playwright whose first passion was the theatre.

I hadn’t realized the extent of his esteem in the theatrical world until I was surprised to see an obituary by his biographer, Carol Rocamora, in the February 2012 issue of American Theatre. The title of her book, Acts of Courage: Vaclav Havel’s Life in the Theater applies to the reputation the author earned as an activist against the Soviet-controlled communist regime in 1970’s Prague. Havel was imprisoned for protesting the violation of human rights, and called “Vaclav Havel, dissident” thereafter. Such was the playwright’s international reputation that major theatres in Vienna, London and New York named Havel their “playwright in residence, and pledged to produce all his plays.” Rocamora mentions such esteemed writers as Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller in her list of Havel supporters. Stoppard and Pinter protested in London by reading a Havel play; Becket and Miller wrote plays in his honor. A trilogy of Havel’s autobiographical one-acts “about the plight of a silenced Czech playwright named Vanek” inspired a series of “Vanek plays” from other authors. Rocamora cites Havel’s 11 full-length dramas and 7 one-acts as “plays that have an important place in the European Theatre of the absurd.” This is fitting for a dissident author and provocateur who read Kafka and Brecht and fought for the “power of the powerless.” Rocamora sums up Havel’s significance by asserting,

The gift of Havel’s life in the theatre lies not in the success of his plays, nor even in their individual merit. It lies in the essence of theatre’s value – what it can mean to a culture, and how it can transform a culture.

Transforming a culture was the life’s work of the poet Christopher Logue, who also died last December. Logue is best known for his free-verse adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, collectively entitled War Music. He translates the Greek epic into a 20th century idiom that is vivid as the film adaptations through which most Americans under the age of 50 know Homer. Logue’s critical acclaim includes references to the visual imagination enlivening his imagery. “Logue’s greatest achievement is his ability to make us see the Trojan War…We see the cinematography of the battlefield and it is astonishing.” Not a literal translation (Logue did not read Greek), his version of the Iliad continues to influence other adapters of Homer and stands on its own feet regardless of its distance from the original. Logue’s “magpie style of poetry,” despite what his detractors claim, becomes a virtue. The fourth installment of War Music is called All Day Permanent Red (the title refers to a lipstick ad), and it features a mash-up of Dryden, Milton, Kipling, Crane, Shakespeare and the contemporary poet August Kleinzahler.

Just as American Theatre’s obituary surprised me to attention with news of Havel’s death, the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine featured that journal’s version of an obit: name / dates / excerpt. It reads:

Christopher Logue

His head was opened, egglike, at the back,
Mucked with thick blood, blood trickling from his mouth,
His last words were:
“Prince, your trumpeter has lost his breath.”

“Our worst fear was his face would fade,”
Telespiax’s father said.
“But it did not. We will remember it until we die.”

War Music opens with the imperative, “Now hear this.” In excerpts like the above, Logue’s injunction sounds as a warning to simply pay attention to the details, however unpleasant they may be. The music of Logue’s diction is dissonant and his palette is sharp. And it is full of irony and pathos. One of his Iliad-inspired chapters is entitled GBH (for the legal term “Grievous bodily harm”). A former Black Watch guard and prisoner of war, Logue earned the right to versify his stripes. The courageous resilience that is an uncanny hallmark of the battle-tested warrior balances the gore of the battlefield.

As one sits upright from a dream in which he drowned
And reaches for the light –
Troy reached inside itself and found new strength.

Metaphors like this stimulate attention. Attention to a great poet’s voice stimulates reflection which makes meaning possible. Considering a violent image such as a head split open - “egglike” - is a more disturbing experience on a deeper level than merely watching the gratuitous version of it enacted on screen. The simulated grotesqueness of filmed violence can never compare to the mind’s ability to imagine and connect. One is reminded of the director Peter Sellar’s observation that contemporary audiences are curious as to how the effect of Oedipus poking out his eyes is staged and achieved, where the original Greek audience would have asked what provoked such violence in the first place. One of Logue’s gifts is his unflinching take on the horrible deaths in warfare. Achilles’ friend Patroclus fells the Trojan charioteer, Akafact, spearing him while the Trojans attempt to burn the Myrmidons’ ship. Describing the straight airborne path of the javelin, Logue suspends time for a moment before capturing the impact and nailing the pitch of deadly battle:

Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.

If one averts one’s eyes for a moment when a sword splits a skull in two in a contemporary action film or epic TV series, one misses only special effects and vapid gore. The “shock factor” authors like Poe, Rimbaud and Artaud sought are mitigated rather than enhanced by technology. To leave off reading this poetry after Akafact is “stapled” by Patroclus’ spear is to miss the power of Logue’s image evoking the haunting finality of death and the unsettling transience of simply vanishing “into sunlight.”

Near the end of All Day Permanent Red, Logue moves from an individual leave-taking to a panorama of the battlefield. It is another dramatic gesture in which the particular is refracted through and magnified by a universalizing lens. The prismatic quality of art is what enables a great writer, painter or composer to transcend the specific and articulate what Walt Whitman called the “song of the universal.”

“Goodbye little fellow with the gloomy face.”
As Greece, as Troy, fought on and on.

Or are they only asleep?
They are too tired to sleep.
The tears are falling from their eyes.

The noise they make while fighting is so loud
That what you see is like a silent film.
And as the dust converges over them
The ridge is as it is when darkness falls.

Silence and light.

Now hear this: Logue’s War Music will not vanish so long as singers sing the songs of war and its horrors, terrors and pities. The World War One soldier, poet and chronicler Wilfred Owen wrote, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” While their corporal voices may be silenced, their war music reverberates in a key arrestingly familiar.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned…

The Second Coming (William Butler Yeats)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Britten set the William Blake-inspired line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” as a central motif of his masterpiece chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw (itself an adaptation of the Henry James novella of the same name). John Tavener set the entire apocalyptic Yeats poem as a haunting motet for chorus and organ. Like Britten, Tavener is an admirer of Blake, and has set both the innocent “Little Lamb” and the experienced “Tyger.” He embodies that dialectic by writing “innocent” lullaby-like chorales for the chorus contrasted with the “experienced” dissonance of the organ’s cadenzas, erupting outbursts that sound like the polluting industries of modernity. Yeats’ nightmarish vision of a modern-day Sphinx slouching towards the cradle of a civilization numbed to sleep was written in the aftermath of the First World War. What would his ode for today be?

The “ceremony of innocence” is not only drowned, it is spat upon, kicked, beaten and grotesquely abused in Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Gathering Evidence, a chronicle of his troubled youth in Austria during and immediately after the Nazi era. Yeats’ poem reads like a nursery rhyme compared to Bernhard’s vitriol, but behind his eviscerating dissection of the Austrian “Catholic-Nazi denial of the spirit” lies the stone-cold face of harsh truth.

The locale in question in his account is none other than the city of Mozart, Salzburg.

The city has always rejected those spirits it could not understand and has never taken them back under any circumstance, as I know from experience…I have to seize the moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then…For all too soon a time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light…and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.

Personal experiences resonate with Bernhard’s. Coming home for an artist, if not impossible, can be fraught with tension and peril for the subject who vainly thinks he may be understood, if not celebrated for returning with the symbolic boon to contribute to the society that, for better or (more likely) for worse, shaped him.

It is at this point that one of the greatest agents of destruction, the Church (or religion generally), sets about destroying his soul, while the schools, acting on the authority and under the orders of the governments of all states throughout the world, apply themselves to murdering his mind.

The transformation of the boarding school Bernhard attended during and after Hitler’s regime may give one inclined to dismiss the above pause to reconsider.

Inside the boarding house I could find no striking changes, but the so-called day-room, where we had formerly been instructed in National Socialism, had been turned into a chapel…where Hitler’s portrait had once hung on the wall, there was now a large cross, and in place of the piano [that] accompanied our singing of National Socialist songs…there now stood a harmonium…We now sang hymns where we had previously sung Nazi songs…

Elaborating on the means by which “so-called universal art is pressed into service to disguise this perverted denial of spirit,” Bernhard warns the artist who would guard herself from the polluting influence of a corrupt and hypocritical society:

It is therefore of paramount importance to be on one’s guard and avoid being bluffed, for in this city the confidence trick has been developed into a fine art, and every year thousands and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, are duped by it.

Surely he jests? Yet has the corrupting influence of the “confidence men” diminished even a degree? Hardly. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the time-worn saying goes, and the proof is in the history lessons our schools gloss over for fear of offending PTA officers, coaches and preachers. The pattern is cyclical and epidemic.

The masters were simply the servants of a corrupt and essentially philistine society, which meant that they were just as corrupt and philistine themselves, and their pupils were expected to grow up to be corrupt and philistine in their turn…I found myself gripped in the intolerable vice of an educational machine which purveyed history as a dead subject while pretending it was vitally important…

His diagnosis is not far off the mark. His cure, while extreme, merits the consideration of a painfully honest examination. What is lacking is a collective courage to face the harsh truths of our human condition and the widespread corruption that impedes progress.

The world would be better off if all these so-called middle schools, grammar schools, secondary schools and so on were abolished and we were to confine education to elementary schools and universities. For elementary schools are not destructive – they do not destroy anything in a young person’s nature; and universities are there for those who are suited to the pursuit of learning and would be equipped for a higher education even without having attended a secondary school. Secondary schools, on the other hand, should be abolished because they bring inevitable ruin upon a large proportion of the young.

Bernhard holds up two examples of easy targets for the ruthless venality of any so-called civilized society: a disabled boy and a nerdy teacher who “was the laughing stock of the whole school.”

All the baseness of society, all its natural cruelty and viciousness – all its sickness, in fact – were daily vented on these two…There was nobody who did not participate in the entertainment, for the supposedly healthy members of any society enjoy such entertainment – whether secretly or not, whether openly or behind a mask of hypocrisy – at the expense of the suffering, the crippled, and the sick. In such a community, such an institution, a victim is always sought and always found, and if he is not a victim already, form the start, he will in any case by made into one.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats indicts both the philistine perpetrator and the silent bystander or tacit accomplice. One rationalizes his actions with reasoned arguments (attorneys and executives are obvious examples of the “confidence men” and bullies that exist in every field). The other lamely excuses his position of neutrality with the lukewarm rationale of “there was nothing I could do.” The lies a man tells himself may be the most damaging of all.

The often fraught choice between the broad road of social “experience” (aka material “success”) versus the narrower, “road less traveled” path of pure, “innocent” authenticity is one of the causes of the neurotic split. But that is a deep psychodynamic subject. The initiate faces peril and frequently perishes. He may emerge permanently damaged, rarely comes out unscathed and is always wounded or scarred by the dramatic confrontation with corruption. This crucible or initiation or purification or life-shattering trauma occurs when the “innocent” pilgrim attempts to enter a closed circle or confronts the “system.” The innocence / experience dialectic is manifest as good / evil and pure / corrupt. It is a through-line across the history of humanity and present in mythology and art. The Christ-figure wrongly condemned, the sacrificial hero and the mad prophet are all related. Odysseus being tossed to and fro upon the “wine-dark seas,” Kafka’s alter ego trying to enter the enigmatic Castle or facing the cryptic Trial, and the unjustly accused Billy Budd’s vain defense against the formidable villain Claggart are all crucible experiences where this fundamental confrontation is variously resolved.

So-called fairy tales and children’s stories are full of the allegorical resonance of this essential dialectic. The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland are many-layered troves of these symbolic, archetypal truths. What the Renaissance era called the “good life” (and this artist calls the “authentic”) requires an open-ended system. It is what Novalis means when he writes “the world must become Romanticized.” It must open another window of the collective mind. It is the window that opens onto the creative path, and this never-ending capacity for Phoenix-like newness always threatens a status quo that settles for compromised novelty. It is an integration of cognition and intuition, reason and emotion. It is the as-yet unconsummated marriage of the enlightenment and romanticism. It questions everything, especially “received” wisdom and “given” truth. It pledges allegiance to the soul, individual and universal, and not to particular flags or creeds. In acknowledging the existence of human error it embraces the elusiveness of any so-called “absolute” truth. It requires equal parts intellectual curiosity and courage. Poe reminds us the poet sees injustice where others see nothing amiss. The cliché “the truth hurts” exists with good reason. “Speaking truth to power” is necessary at every level of society, from confronting abusive parents to calling out playground bullies to exposing the emperor’s new clothes regardless of fashion and whistle-blowing dishonesty wherever it is manifest. Systems and institutions require confrontation and reexamination if they are not to stagnate or be slowly poisoned from within by “the invisible worm” in Blake’s “sick rose.”

Emile Zola’s courageous open letter, J’accuse! was directed at the anti-Semitic injustice of the Dreyfus affair in France a century ago. It is as infamous in modern European history as it is untaught in the United States. Zola “saw the cause and the effect, the roots and the tree… He was a moment of the conscience of man,” utters one character near the end of the classic film, The Life of Zola. It is a prototype of the inspirational bio-pic, “the power of one” to confront injustice and provoke change. It is still popular today in films like Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela drama, Invictus.

All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, wrote the poet, philosopher, critic and librettist W.H. Auden (in one of his many Yeats-inspired odes). It is an exhausting and never-ending task. The same humanity that makes poetry and opera possible also succumbs too easily to the temptation to compromise integrity. The path of least resistance is frequently the well-worn one, which should be an immediate red flag for the examining soul when it comes to life choices and not paths in the woods.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thin Partitions...

Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide. (John Dryden)

The latest dystopian fantasy to capture pop culture’s imagination is The Hunger Games. It is also the latest adaptation of a hugely popular series of teen fiction, which may be unique to the current era. The Hunger Games refers to a ritual in which young warriors compete to the death for the prize of rations for their impoverished home districts. Ironic associations with the Olympics and the ancient Greek "Funeral Games" come to mind, as do socio-political programs from welfare to public health to wartime ration cards. Art can be as provocative and complex as the societies it vivifies. And as long as societies are corrupt, dystopian fantasies will stimulate a core of the collective.

Georges Braques said, “the artist is not misunderstood, he is unrecognized. People exploit him without knowing it.” Blunt if not apparently harsh, his indictment holds up to scrutiny. Kay Redfield Jamison’s seminal book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament examines the dialectic of her subtitle, illustrating the remarkable overlap between artists and mental illness. The artist is misunderstood, and mental illness has always been victimized. “Thin partitions” are often all that divide the artist from a clean bill of mental health. Tenuous, ever shifting boundaries exist between the artist and society vis-à-vis the roles the artist plays, and between the misunderstanding and exploitation Braques cited.

Jamison concludes her work of penetrating psychological insight with a discordant warning that resonates with one of the most frequent themes of dystopian imagination, genetic manipulation and sterilization. Writing in 1993, she concludes,

The historical precedent is chilling. Tens of thousands of mentally ill individuals, including many with manic-depressive illness, were sterilized or killed during the Third Reich, and many other thousands of psychiatric patients were sterilized earlier this century in the United States.

Dryden’s “thin partitions” have not prevented the literal confinement of “mad” artists in the form of institutionalization. The more porous, phantom forms of confinements like isolation and criticism are subjective enough to be dismissed. Artists who are “crazy,” “troublesome” or “eccentric” can be relegated to the margins. Michel Foucault’s History of Madness and Unreason in the Classical Age offers unsettling evidence of how the “mad” were often lumped with other “undesirables” like the criminal, the criminally insane, and the poor. The commonality of the cage was forced upon those whom “reasonable” society deemed unreasonable. Skeptics of such unsettling schools as Jamison’s and Foucault’s could offer examples from the Renaissance forward of society’s elevating patronage of the arts. Philistinism and dilettantism have coexisted in each of the eras under consideration. As recently as the 1940’s medical studies suggested sterilization as a “cure” to hereditary mental illness. In a particularly disturbing case, Jamison cites the work of Drs. Myerson and Boyle, reporting on the “high incidence of manic-depressive illness in certain socially prominent families.” Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry they are referring to the eminent family of Henry and William James, the two most famous men of letters in a family as troubled mentally as it was artistically prodigious. “Whom could we have sterilized in this family line to prevent the manic-depressive state and at what cost of social riches, in the truer sense, would this have been done?”

Though the Eugenics movement was short-lived, the disturbing ripples of such prejudice will be felt as long as humanity remains in its current state, subject to human error. Our greatest teacher when it comes to the human condition is found in art. But society has always felt threatened by the democratization of knowledge, and this is another reason the liberal arts are increasingly banished to the margins. We give lip service to the value of a liberal arts education and pour our resources into so-called “homeland security,” sports and pop culture. And while “fringe festivals” of “alternative” artistic expressions may be increasingly popular, art has always been a marginal enterprise. Every age records a few strident voices bemoaning the paucity of support for culture, lamenting a golden – and lost – “classical” age where art flourished on the wings of wealthy patrons and ennobled a society who appreciated its creative bounty. The complaint that every era has been more cultured than one’s own is oft repeated.

Artists have always been misunderstood and exploited. The volatile artistic temperament, with its “near alliance” to “madness” has always threatened a “reasonable” status quo. Any artist who has felt the sting of a sucker-punch from having her personality used against her when its volatility has inconvenienced a power-wielding player can testify to the painful injustice of such an experience. The dystopian fantasy is not a modern invention; speculative or science fiction is not unique to a world capable of nuclear annihilation. The primary function of art is an affirmative response to the eternal question about the meaning of life. The oldest mythologies and the latest blockbusters, with varying degrees of success, attest to this. The believers in progress would do well to consider the roles of artistic expression across history, and pay attention to the “colorful” personalities behind so much of what we call “great art.” The eminent New England Transcendentalist, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote,

The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.

Author of some of the greatest fiction of the 19th century, and American letters in general, Herman Melville suffered from the “spleen” of a melancholy temperament that tossed him about the seas of life like a sailor on one of his fictional whale-boats.

This going mad of a friend or acquaintance comes straight home to every man who feels his soul in him, - which but few men do. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains.

Jamison’s chapter titles are poetic quotes describing states of the temperament she considers, and its parallels with mental illness. “That fine madness,” “Endless night, fierce fires and shramming cold,” “Could it be madness – this?” “Their life a storm whereon they ride,” “The mind’s canker in its savage mood,” “Genealogies of these high mortal miseries,” and “This net throwne upon the heavens” are the vivid titles from poets as varied as Byron, Dickinson, Donne and Melville.

Edgar Allen Poe was one of the brightest lights in world literature, one of its most original and visionary voices, and among its most troubled. A manic-depressive alcoholic who attempted suicide and died tragically young, Poe wrote compellingly about his experiences. Rather than being dismissed as a melodramatic and eccentric dissolute, Poe is a window into those “thin partitions” between creativity and a temperament allied with illness.

My feelings at this moment are pitiable indeed. I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before. I have struggled in vain against the influence of this melancholy – You will believe me when I say I am still miserable in spite of the great improvement in my circumstances.

Writing in the early twentieth century about Poe, Dr. John Robertson cited the fortune the world derived from the troubled minds of artists, “however high an inheritance tax the victims of heredity must pay.” A portion of that tax is what Poe referred to as the poet’s genus irritabile. “The poet sees injustice never where it does not exist, but often where the ordinary man sees no injustice whatsoever.” The poet is an “irritable genius” indeed, both by nature and by calling. This is to the benefit of society, and at not inconsiderable cost to his own wellbeing. “Art,” Kafka said, is “an axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart.” And like the hammer of Thor, it can be a burdensome instrument that demands tremendous courage and strength from the one who would wield it. It is no wonder so many artists are irritable, disturbed and “touched.”

Jamison’s book concludes with an appendix of “Writers, artists, and composers with probable Cyclothymia, Major depression, or Manic-depressive illness.” It is a staggering list. The poets alone number 84, and include such eminent figures as Blake, Burns, Byron, Coleridge, Dickinson, Eliot, Hopkins, Hugo, Keats, Millay, Pasternak, Pushkin, Shelley, Tennyson and Whitman. Nearly two-dozen suicides number among these poets. When one considers the fact the vast majority of suicides are victims of mental illness, the life-threatening gravity of mental health appears in a new light.

Robert Schumann suffered acutely throughout his brief life, before dying in an asylum at 46. “Violent rushes of blood, unspeakable fear, breathlessness, momentary unconsciousness, alternate quickly.” As did the creative muses in a composer whose output was astonishing during his “manic” periods of hyperactive inspiration.

The poet and Jesuit priest Gerald Manley Hopkins died of a “fever” at a similar age, “morbidly depressed, and in fear of going mad,” Jamison notes. Like Poe and many others, he articulated his experiences in both prose and verse. “The melancholy I have all my life been subject to has become of late years not indeed more intense in its fits but rather more disturbed, constant, and crippling… my state is much like madness.” He described his “Dark Sonnets” as poems “written in blood.”

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Virginia Woolf, another tragic genius and suicide, described the lingering darkness of depression over which the sufferer has little control,

…those interminable nights which do not end at twelve, but go into the double figures – thirteen, fourteen, and so on until they reach the twenties, and then the thirties, and then the forties…there is nothing to prevent nights from doing this if they choose.

Equally alarming can be the “merging of identities and experiences so common to the manic experience.” Jamison cites a “who-could-make-this-stuff-up?” example from the poet Theodore Roethke:

One day I was passing a diner and all of a sudden I knew what it was like to be a lion. I went into the diner and said to the counter-man, “Bring me a steak. Don’t cook it. Just bring it.” So he brought me this raw steak and I started eating it. The other customers made like they were revolted, watching me. And I began to see that maybe it was a little strange.

Foucault’s seminal work on mental illness in the 18th century is the subject of another essay in this labyrinthine thread of art and society. Like Jamison, he notes with chilling effect the fragile balances between extremities in illness and treatment, where sterilization lingers in a shadow holding a scythe. Jamison quotes his observations on the bipolar twins of “mania and melancholy:”

…the affinity is evident: not the affinity of symptoms linked in experience, but the affinity – more powerful and so much more evident in the landscape of the imagination – that unites in the same fire both smoke and flame.

It is telling that even the most clinical of works – Foucault's and Jamison's are two divergent examples of case studies – depends upon metaphor, the lifeblood of poetry, to communicate the truths of lived experience. The creative impulse is more omnipresent than the rational mind of Cartesian logic would have us believe. Other groundbreaking works are case study examples of this split, like The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and the Origins of Consciousness, and The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, by Julian Jaynes and Iaian McGilchrist, respectively. These two great books can be read as “chicken and egg” rationales for the same argument approached from opposite directions. Foucault is relevant again here, and his claims for the “Age of Reason” also being an age of regression (and repression) have been as controversial as Jaynes’ findings. McGilchrist’s title refers to a dichotomy, that of the rational mind – “the emissary” – usurping control from the intuitive, affective and integrative “master,” the creative half of the brain. Against Descartes’ limited and limiting “I think, therefore I am” is Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know.”

Creativity requires an integration of inspiration and discipline, emotion and reason, freedom and control. This dialectic must be balanced sometimes upon a tightrope. Again, those “thin partitions” draw us near. Coleridge called them “fugitive causes.”

Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, has a logic of its own as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and more dependent on more and more fugitive causes.

One of the “fugitive causes” of the tension between artist and society, most clearly seen in the hemispheric differences of the brain, the rational mind’s imbalanced control of power across the course of history - and especially since the so-called “Enlightenment”- resides in what Keats called “negative capability.”

This is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact & reason.” Keats goes on to say that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.” Given our craving for certainty, our discomfort with the shadow side of existence, our hunger for control, order, safety and comfort, it should not surprise us the chameleon artist not only feels ill at ease within conformist society, he experiences the distancing effects of being ostracized or exiled. Whether this experience is literal, as in the case of confinement or institutionalization, or more figurative, in the forms of rejection and isolation, is a matter of degree. The figurative means are both fugitive and obvious, from the marginalization of the “eccentric” or “different,” to the ousting of the irritable, axe-wielding figure.

Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, like Foucault’s History of Madness, is considered elsewhere. It is worth noting his linkage of the artist and the “absurd man.” The absurd man is the one who describes and experiences life rather than explaining and justifying it. The absurd man is allied to both great wit and madness, and through his comfort with irony and ambiguity produces “passionate works.” It is the artist who is most alive. Recall Martha Graham’s classic advice to Agnes DeMille to “keep the channels open” and stay attuned to that “divine dissatisfaction, the blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It is not a question of the artist’s superiority to her fellows; the values of creativity and imagination are uncontested, the power of the human mind is arguably its most supreme faculty. No, it is a question of correcting an imbalance, of breaking down walls that have compartmentalized artists and creativity because they always, at some level or another question the establishment. They pick at the frozen regions of the heart, they expose the corrupt means used to justify the ends of greed and the lust for power.

The Myth of Sisyphus should be required reading. Camus asserts the primacy of the creative impulse in defining the essence of humanity.

Creation is the most effective, the staggering evidence of man’s dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition…

Along with the revolt against all the limiting forces that enslave the human mind and body, Camus holds up not only freedom, but passion and diversity. A life of emotional openness and engagement, of an enlarging embrace. Taking a page out of the Jungian analyst James Hollis’ work, the ultimate question one must ask before any life decision is simply, “does this diminish or enlarge my soul?” Virtues enlarge, vices diminish. We are not talking of commandments, creeds or dogmas. The basic human choices of love versus fear or hate, gratitude versus envy or spite, joy versus avarice, and generosity versus greed are at stake. “Intelligence and passion mingle and delight each other,” Camus notes, in an unlikely affirmation from an alleged existentialist. Great wit must be near allied to madness in such an absurd world as this one. It is an allegiance that should be cherished as it is celebrated and sustained by the artistic marriage of the head and the heart.

Myth: Atlas and autobiography

During a recent visit to my massage therapist, when I complained about the nagging pain in my shoulders and the knots pinching my nerves, my clairvoyant intuitive masseuse whispered a single word: Atlas.

Condemned to shoulder the world – forever – by the gods he dared defy, freedom seems unattainable to Atlas.

Thus begins the back cover description of Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of “the myth of Atlas and Heracles” (Hercules).

I first read Weight (Canongate, 2005), her slim, “visionary and inventive, believable and intimate” modern mythological tale a year ago and recently re-read it. Winterson shows her autobiographical hand in the introduction. By contrasting authenticity with so-called reality TV and its opportunistic kin, she hopes to reclaim “the space where imagination used to sit.” She points towards a collective terror of the inner life, of the sublime, of the poetic, of the non-material, of the contemplative.

The brother of the freedom-loving fire-thief Prometheus, Atlas was one of the titans who revolted against Zeus and the gods. He was punished with the weight of the world, literally. Winterson narrates her tale in the first person, underscoring the blurred lines between memoir and fiction, identifying with her subject and inviting the reader to do the same. She laces her novel with wit, frequently of the self-deprecating variety:

It’s in my name, I should have known. My name is Atlas – it means ‘the long-suffering one.’

The author illuminates psychological truths latent in these stories, linking them to religions and fairy tales alike: His punishment was a clever one – it engaged his vanity.

In a chapter called "Leaning on the Limits of Myself," memoir enters the narrative’s stream and a confessional Winterson merges her voice with her subject’s. In an earlier scene where Atlas encounters Hera, the near-omnipotent consort of Zeus asks the hero questions he cannot yet answer, leaving him with cryptic pronouncements ringing in his ears. Oracles – from Delphi to the Matrix – are misunderstood when taken literally. They are frequently corrupted by greed and ambition. Winterson contrasts Atlas’ flawed but pure heart with that of his comrade, Heracles, who “had no brains but plenty of cunning.” A near-invincible champion and bully, Heracles’ unrestrained lust and over-sized ego will be the consequential end to means that can never be justified. With ironic poetic justice, Heracles remembers his portentous oracle only in the moment of his death.

What can I tell you about the choices we make?
Fate reads like the polar opposite of decision, and so much of life reads like fate.

So opens the autobiographical interlude that lends Weight much of the force of its title.

I realize now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realize that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed-of-light power – to break that gravitational pull.

Recall the thundering tremolos that have a gravitational pull all their own in Schubert’s setting of Heine’s poem Der Atlas.

Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas! This can be translated as “unhappy” or “unlucky” Atlas. Heine’s poetry walks a tenuous tightrope between bitter satire and romantic pining over loss. His best lyrics function on both levels simultaneously, and thus his Atlas is also exile and outcast, punished for the vaulting ambition that yearns after freedom.

The whole world of sorrows must I bear / I bear the unbearable / And it breaks the heart inside me…

Schubert’s two-minute song is among the most terse and fierce he wrote, full of venom and sarcasm, directed inward as much as outwards, one imagines. Winterson understands.

I try not to burn up my world with rage. / It is so hard.

She also knows Dangerous things have to be contained. This can be a sobering recognition for a writer unafraid of the dark. Schubert and Heine understand.

But her story is ultimately about letting go, about releasing the burdens of the past by working through them. The two chapters preceding her confessional are entitled "No Way Out…" and "But Through." Following the death of Heracles, Winterson’s Atlas meets Laika, a dog from a 1957 sputnik. In a tender moment holding up a world of truth, she writes,

Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

Various spiritual traditions evoke images of calling back the true Self. Whether from a fractured past or a crippling present, a compromise in the name of “success,” “profit” or “security,” the self, disabled, neglected and / or abused, requires renewal.

Winterson’s meditation merges science and psychology, astronomy and metaphysics. Such porousness should be more commonplace. Perhaps it is too dangerous.

The story moves at the speed of light, and like light, the story is curved. There are no straight lines. The lines that smooth across the page, deceive. Straightforward is not the geometry of space.

In the year since I first picked up Weight, I have experienced the most painful loss of my professional life. I was fired by an organization I was helping turn-around from a period of artistic uncertainty and fiscal disaster. We shared considerable success, and I remain proud of my work. An artist’s work is his offspring, and the lines between work and life are as meaningless to the artist as the distinction “parent” is to a father. Neither “role” is something one assumes like a title: it is who one is. It reaches the core of one’s being. Like Atlas, I rebelled against elders I found unreasonable and unjust. I am not trying to romanticize the prosaic circumstances by which an artistic director was fired by his board via email. I don’t condemn the cadre of friends and colleagues I assumed would join me in a fight that never happened. Betrayal is always painful, even when it manifests in silence or the "easy" path of least resistance. Pain is a prerequisite for growth, and stinging burns can be clarifying.

I'd always identified with Prometheus and the ambition that kindles industry and fires creativity. The indomitable flame of the human spirit is sparked by this freedom-loving dissident. Prometheus is vain, arrogant and proud, but he is fearless and his vision enlarges. Many of us artistic directors are guilty of his sins. We should all strive to be a torchbearers of his vision. But I had never identified with Atlas, he who does not act so much as endure. I have a better understanding of Atlas today, and hope I might find the freedom to laugh at my folly and the burdens I’ve foolishly shouldered. In the weeks following my firing, I joked that the board of the professional chorus I had led to not inconsiderable acclaim had done me a favor and relieved me of a great burden. Of course the bitterness and resentment thinly veiled by my deprecating remarks was part of the burden I’d imposed upon myself to a point of uncontainable toxicity.

Let me crawl out from under this world I have made. It doesn’t need me any more. Strangely, I don’t need it either. I don’t need the weight. Let it go. There are reservations and regrets, but let it go.

Winterson’s conclusions remind me of a poem I’ve read like a mantra since a dear friend and cousin forwarded it to me. My closest comrade in empathy, and an even greater victim of betrayal and injustice in a vocational setting eerily similar to mine, shared the following E. E. Cummings poem (from Complete Poems, 1904-1962):

let it go - the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise - let it go it
was sworn to

let them go - the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers - you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go - the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things - let all go

so comes love

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Negative Capability and the Chameleon Artist...

And what is a genuine lunatic? He is a man who prefers to go mad, in the social sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain higher idea of human honor...For a lunatic is a man that society does not want to hear but wants to prevent from uttering certain unbearable truths (from Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society, by Antonin Artaud).

Artaud's lunatic could be any artist who prizes integrity over profit, authenticity over so-called success.

What a Buddhist might call “comfort with uncertainty,” the romantic poet John Keats famously defined as “negative capability.”

…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact & reason…What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one

Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the “fugitive causes” behind the “thin partitions” dividing conscious creation and sub- or unconscious “inspiration.”

Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, has a logic of its own as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and more dependent on more and more fugitive causes.

Keats described the experience of spending time with Coleridge at their first meeting:

…he broached a thousand things – let me see if I can give you a list – Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical sensation – Metaphysics – Different genera and species of Dreams – Nightmare – a dream accompanied by a sense of touch – single and double touch – A dream related – First and second consciousness …Monsters – the Kraken – Mermaids… A Ghost story … (in Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison. Free Press, 1994)

W.B. Yeats, in his colorfully entitled essay, A Remonstrance with Scotsmen for Having Soured the Dispositions of Their Ghosts and Faeries articulated one of the differences between those artists able to “tolerate extremes of emotions and to live on close terms with darker forces” (Jamison) and the so-called normal people ruled primarily by reason traditional religion and/or Cartesian logic.

You – you will make no terms with the spirits of fire and earth and air and water. You have made the Darkness your enemy. We – we exchange civilities with the world beyond.

The chameleon Arthur Rimbaud, the only poet in literary history to give up verse for munitions dealings, quitting Europe for Africa, wrote vividly about the “voyage and exploration” of the artistic process. The poet,

makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences… He reaches the unknown

One of the reasons art has the ability to move us, to evoke a catharsis of emotion and bring us to tears is its authenticity as experience: “not the feeling of the thing but the thing itself,” as Debussy described it. True art is never mere representation, though some replicas – prints and recordings, for example – may still stimulate a visceral response. Articulating the spaces of the “vast, unknown region” is an art in itself.

Writing ostensibly about Byron, fellow romantic and neurotic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley chimed, Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song. The same transformative process – alternately purgatorial, purifying, refining & / or alchemical – applies for the range of human emotion, from pain and suffering to joy and love, and every variation across the spectrum of what we call the human experience.

Byron himself describes in his autobiographical epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, how “the act of creating becomes…essential in its own right” (Jamison):

‘Tis to create, and in creating live / A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give / The life we image, even as I do now.

Martha Graham called the varied impulses of the artistic chameleon “urges” that motivate the artist and make her “more alive than the others.” Byron’s and Graham’s prescriptions need not be read as judgments, though they may indict many a narrow-minded philistine or proletariat. Accessing the source of inspiration and its enlivening vitality, the artist cannot help but be more sensitive to light and attuned to shadows. And this “many-personed” existence should not be one in need of justification or rationalization: it should be celebrated, held up as exemplary and emulated.

“Essentially a chameleon gift, a gift for fluent adaptation and vivid response,” as one Coleridge biographer described the visionary and volatile talents of his subject. Jamison lists Virginia Woolf, Keats, Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson among the vivid examples of the “amphibious, mercurial…and highly responsive nature” of these “chameleon” artists. That “negative capability” is necessary if one is to achieve balance with such a combustible temperament as the artistic one (which mirrors the manic-depressive with uncanny likeness; this is the subject of Jamison’s excellent book).

How the chameleon lives and thrives in a world of venality is an essential concern for anyone who has witnessed and/or experienced discrimination related to the mercurial temperament that is symptomatic of both the artist and the manic-depressive individual (this artist prefers that descriptive term over “bipolar” or its milder incarnation, the equally antiseptic and clinical “cyclothymia”). Jamison underlines one of the undervalued advantages of this difficult temperament:

the undulating, rhythmic, and transitional moods so characteristic of manic-depressive illness and its temperaments can also blend, or harness, seemingly contradictory moods, observations and perceptions. Yet, ultimately, these fluxes and yokings may more accurately reflect the changes, ambiguities, and linked oppositions that truly exist both in man and the natural world. The “consistent attitude toward life,” may not, as Professor Jerome McGann points out, be as finally perceptive as an ability to live with, and portray, constant change.

One of our most spectacular chameleons was so influential as to have one version of the romantic hero named after him, the “Byronic.” Lord Byron’s wry response to Madame de Staël’s comment, “You should not have warred with the world – it will not do – it is too strong always for any individual,“ resonates with the volatile artist and the victim of prejudice where mental imbalance or illness is concerned. I perfectly acquiesce in the truth of this remark; but the world has done me the honor to begin the war.

I find Byron’s life as arresting and inspiring as I find his poetry, and the line between them is tenuous across the span of both. Towards the end of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poet sings,

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love

Jamison cites the “sheer power of his life and emotions,” and it follows the two are inextricable, the power of the latter infuses the former, and that symbiosis is a hallmark of the Romantic era. The failure of the “romantic project” to fully take hold is our loss. Byron articulated the extraordinary process of turning the temperamental storms into creativity and ennobled humanity with his life’s work. Artists are exemplary in this capacity, and the lessons of their lives are as essential to our understanding of the human condition as their inimitable body of work is to the measure of the value of our existence. The artistic temperament is a volatile compound, a cauldron of transformative potential. It is not for the faint of heart, weak of mind, or compromised of spirit. It asks nothing less than the whole of one’s life in service to the power of art.

Yet, see, he mastereth himself, and makes / His torture tributary to his will. (from Manfred)