30 March 2010


Gathered here for reference, the biographical details of Pessoa's heteronyms.

Alberto Caeiro, born Lisbon 1889, died of tuberculosis in 1915. Average height, and frail build, blond, blue-eyed. Only completed primary school. His parents died at a young age and he was brought up by an old great-aunt. The others, including Pessoa-himself, regard him as "o mestre", the master.

Alvaro de Campos, born Tavira, 15/10/1890 at 13:30. "Branco e moreno" (I'm not sure what that means), uses a monocle, brings to mind a Portuguese jew. He's 1.75m tall, thin, slightly hunched. Trained as a navel engineer, he has been around, stays in the best hotels, and drives a Chevrolet. There are three distinct phases to his work: the decadent, the futurist, and the apathetic. But Pessoa wrote the poems of the second stage first.

Ricardo Reis, born 1887 in Porto, jesuit-educated. Trained in medicine. After 1919 he goes into exile in Brazil, since he is a monarchist. Pessoa never killed him off, which is why Jose Saramago had to do it.

Bernardo Soares, who wrote O Livro do Dessassossego, is described as a semi-heteronym, a simple mutilation of Pessoa's own personality.

(All this is from the introduction to Poesias: Heterónimos, which in turn derives from a letter of 13 January 1935 from Pessoa to Adolfo Casais Monteiro).

MCT: Terry Eagleton

The final selection in MCT is by Terry Eagleton, and a quick bit of research shows he has been an amazingly prolific thinker and writer. I've most recently come across him in his latest role as scourge of the "new atheists". His review of The God Delusion caused all sorts of jollity, and his book Reason, Faith and Revolution argued for (it appears) a scarcely visible god who created the universe as a pleasant experiment.

Eagleton's been a consistent Marxist, although his marxism, like his belief, has always been subject to the reservation that a lot of what passes for marxism (religion) isn't.

So his analysis of "The rise and fall of theory", from After Theory (2003), is based on the economic and political conditions during Theory's heyday. It's fun to read, but it really doesn't challenge the arguments so much as deplore the consequences. I suppose the main problem is that so much of the substructure of Eagleton's view is hidden from view here, like the substructure of religious thought. It's an internal ideology.

29 March 2010

Felix Randal

That last entry tempted me to look up the text of Hopkins' poem, and in doing so, I found one of the sites where essays are for sale, presumably to school students. Here's the sample of the essay offered:
Poem Analysis: Felix Randall By Gerald Maneley Hopkins [...] This poem written by Hopkins, in 1880, is a religious sonnet addressed to the dead Felix Randall, the farrier. It is a sonnet, meaning that it contains 14 lines, divided up into two quatrains and a sestet, which in turn is divided up in two tercets. This way of writing in fact keeps Randall from expressing himself completely because he is following a fixed rhyme scheme, but nonetheless he has written a powerful poem with an extensive use of vocabulary. The story that is told in the sonnet is divided up into two different perspectives: the physical state, and the mental or spiritual state. The fist quatrain is told in a physical point of view and is an introduction to Felix Randall who is horse farrier. This being mentioned immediately brings to mind that he must be a strong man, which in turn creates the [and there the extract ends].
It's more than a bit shit, isn't it? I love the suggestion it's the verse form that keeps Randal[l] from expressing himself completely, rather than the fact that he's dead. And of course "an extensive use of vocabulary" is so important. In fact, I'd suggest that the use of vocabulary should be compulsory in language, never mind poetry.

Anyway, here's the poem (from Bartleby):

FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Cunningham talked about Greg Woods' reference to Randal's beautiful sweat, and as he said, there's no mention of sweat here at all. Was Woods vaguely remembering the word "sweet"?

Of course, I don't know anything about Woods' analysis except what Cunningham cunningly quotes. But it seems clear to me that Hopkins is open about the physicality of Randal, and accepts the ambiguity of the religious and the personal relationship between the priest and the farrier. There's so much more in this poem to be interested in: in the lexicon the apparent bathos of the final word "sandal", the "random grim forge", the "mould of man"; the use of colloquialisms like "and all", "all road ever"; that chiming repetition of "all", which in certain accents would rhyme with "Randal" and "sandal"; the on/off alliteration. And above all, that phrase "How far from then forethought of": I'm still not sure what that means, but I feel the sense of it.

MCT: Valentine Cunningham

Near the end of MCT, now, and the first of two post-theory (a begged question, of course) pieces. "Touching reading" is a sparkling read, and you can imagine how good a lecturer Cunningham must be. It's a chapter of his 2002 book Reading after Theory. It's essentially an attack on mainly US proponents of Theory, centered around the concept of tact in reading. In a twist ironically redolent of Theorist writing, he approached this by looking at how the concept of touch has been handled (I know) in criticism of, among others, Great Expectations and the poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins. There's a brilliant dissection of William A Cohen's "Manual conduct in Great Expectations" and of Greg Woods' reading of "Felix Randal" in terms of queer theory.

The point of this is to reinstate the view that the purpose of reading is make us better people, to reinstate the human figure into literature, which he says Theorists have excluded. There are various suggestions that the founders of Theory (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) never excluded the human in the way their 'followers' have; for example, Foucault's work is witness to "an interest, a truly human interest, in the human owners of those bodies [which are affected by the power relations]" (p 775).

This is good, insofar as it restores the focus of literary endeavour to understanding the act and purpose of reading. I think there's an underlying tendency to throw out a few babies with the bathwater, though. You can theorise about "the Author", locate the text as part of a wider discourse which speaks through the author, without disregarding the humanistic aspects of reading.

Similarly, though you can deplore the overuse of (eg) queer readings, his gungho approach risks losing the insight that identity politics has brought; and it's hard to think about those issues without using some of Foucault's views on discourse.

At the end of the piece, Cunningham quotes from Stephen King, in a calculatedly anti-theoretical act. King likens the relation between writer and reader as a kind of telepathy. By using words, thoughts and pictures that were in the writer's mind are now in the reader's. Once again, though, I as a reader don't care about what the writer was thinking.

MCT: Alexander Stille

The extract in MCT is the last chapter of Stille's 2002 book The Future of the Past: how the information age threatens to destroy our cultural heritage, a title that may owe more to its publisher's marketing department that to its actual thesis, at least on the evidence here. Being a final chapter, it offers a round up of the previous chapters, in which Stille seems to have spent a lot of time of the history of history, and in particular the role that writing, and later printing, had on our relationship to the past. He moves on to television, and all's going well, with discussion of findings of how tv watching correlates with social activities (negatively), until this paragraph:
Television has created a flat, two-dimensional world of an eternal present - in which everything, whether it is depicted in the present or the past, appears to be happening now.
The change of tone is really apparent when you read it. The tautology doesn't help - I really don't know what he means by "flat, two-dimensional" - but the sudden switch into a declarative mode is weird.

Which is a pity, because there's more interesting stuff about the efffects of the internet: fragmentation, disintermediation and homogenisation. These are things that worry me, too, but I don't think he goes beyond setting out the questions. Maybe inevitably: the internet is so new and changing so fast, no-one can know where it will take us.

One thought from this chapter is that the change to the internet may be less fundamental than the introduction of printing (and of mechanical reproduction). Before that, Stille says, even books were rare objects. One way of looking at the internet is that it makes even more objects available, so it's an extension of the power of printing.

26 March 2010

MCT: David Scott Kastan

I've skipped a few passages in MCT to look at this, and found it interesting, despite its being about textual scholarship, which generally doesn't move me. The essay, "From codex to computer; or, presence of mind", is the fourth chapter in Kastan's Shakespeare and the Book (2001), and looks at the relationship of electronic texts to bound books. It's full of provocative ideas, but I think may miss some points.

The original concern is whether an electronic text is less authentic than a printed one. Kastan points out that particularly in relation to Shakespeare any printed edition is mediated more or less explicitly. Shakespeare himself had no attitude towards print, took no part in getting the plays printed, and so any editorial adjudication on what he meant is dependent on an a priori view of what Shakespeare would have been like to say. (Reading this section, I was reminded of translation practice. There also the question of the writer's intention has importance.)

Kastan quotes T E Hulme as saying that "the covers of a book are responsible for much error" (p 734). By this he means that they artificially isolate the text. Kastan also argues that book-publication gives an artificial fixedness to the published text. And this is a relatively new phenomenon, becoming more prominent as authors' moral rights are more strongly protected.

OK, so what's the comparison? He refers to an online version of King Lear, which I can't immediately find online now. But a screengrab shows that you can see a modern spelling text, the folio and quarto texts, and a facsimile of an early printing (and more) on the screen at the same time. This opens up the play text to all the intertextual links that may be relevant. Well, not all of them. Some selection is being made by an editor even here. And this version of Lear doesn't replace what most people will want, ie an edited text that they can read or speak.

I think the missing point in this is that ebooks generally are more like printed books than this. With ebooks, I think, most people just want a reasonable version of the text. Though the technology does allow hypertextuality, it doesn't enforce it. My suspicion is that it will be a minority taste. I think one effect - either of ebooks or of new developments in print publication (print on demand) is that more obscure works will become more available. But as Kastan accepts, we don't yet know (him in 2001 or me in the space age future).

25 March 2010

MCT: Stuart Hall

"New ethnicities", the essay in this book, dates from 1989, and was published in an ICA book Black Film, British Cinema. It's an odd piece, in that it uses some very theoretical arguing (about the nature of representation) to make some very understandable, almost common-sense points.

Essentially, the argument is that it is now time to develop a more nuanced view of race and the problem of representation by and of blacks. Hall says that previously there has been a fairly simplistic view where the black experience is rather homogenised. Perhaps understandably, give the more urgent need to correct and transform the existing position, there has been a tendency to view 'black' as an umbrella definition. He argues that, of course, 'black' is a politically constructed term, and that hitherto the argument has overlooked the differences within black culture - eg gender and class, as well as, though he's less explicit about this, the different experience of different ethnic groups. (I think that around this time there had been racial violence in Birmingham where Afro-caribbeans had been in conflict with Asians.)

So he says that the concept of ethnicity is more important. Everyone has an ethnicity, including white English people who, if you let them, will act as if ethnicity was something only black people had. It's important to recognise and use that fact, and with it to recognise that among black people there's the same range of experience as among any others. He quotes Hanif Kureishi:
writing [about Britain today] has to be complex. It can't apologize or idealize. It can't sentimentalize and it can't represent only one group as having a monopoly on virtue. 
True, but simple, and quite disappointingly trite, really.

MCT: Fredric Jameson

This essay, "Postmodernism and consumer society" dates from 1983. In it, Jameson tries to outline some of the key features of postmodernism, to show how it links with the transformation to a post-capitalist, consumer society, and to argue that postmodernism isn't just another modernism. His tools are sweeping assumptions and generalisations.

I shouldn't sound so dismissive, not yet, but in the first paragraph of the essay he puts forward The Clash as exemplars of postmodernism (together with Talking Heads and The Gang of Four). I've never seen the point of The Clash. If you wanted to hear reggae, punk or rock, there were always much better performers available. On the other hand, if you wanted a gentle blend of the three, I suppose The Clash were ideal. In fact, postmodernism as Jameson describes it seems to be all about Clash-like experiences.

For example, he suggests that there is a genre of nostalgia film (which includes the Indiana Jones series, and Star Wars, where the nostalgia is not for the past, but for the past forms of film. He sees pastiche as one defining characteristic of postmodernism. The other is "schizophrenia". Drawing on Lacan's view, he sees the schizophrenic experience as one in which streams of events or language are broken into relatively isolated elements. But his big example of this seems unconvincing. He looks at a poem called "China" by Bob Perelman. About 25 separated statements which might add up to a portrayal of a multivocal self-portrait of the country. But, he points out, as if he is being ever so clever, all is not what it seems. Perelman bought a Chinese magazine, and wrote his own captions for the photos in it, and these are the poem. In Jameson's view, this means the poem is at least twice removed from its apparent subject; its primary reference is to the magazine, not the country. It's an incredibly weak argument, but he is saying this is all part of the world of spectacles, as described by (eg) Baudrillard.

A key part of the argument is that "classical modernism" has now been so thoroughly assimilated that it presents no challenge. Finnegans Wake, he'd have to say, is no longer odd. And he sees Ashbery's poetry as postmodern, whereas I'd say they're precisely in the modernist tradition. (As is Perelman's poem). In many ways, postmodernism as he describes it seems to me to be just the everyday popular culture. There is still a strain of elite culture, which has the same difficulty as modernism has always had.

Finally, to return to the start of the essay, he says that "theory" has marked the end of philosophy as such. Really?

24 March 2010

MCT: Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray is clearly an interesting figure, but the extract in MCT is unimpressive in its methods. It's a speech, "The Bodily Encounter with the Mother", that she gave to a conference on mental health in 1981. The main thrust of the first part of the speech is to deplore orthodox Freudianism as banishing or censoring the role of the mother/child relationship. She argues that orthodox thinking - of which Freudianism is a part and a driver - thereby places male attributes as the norm. So far so good, but she (in this speech) attacks Freud using the same shabby tools that he used: speculation and self-reflection mixed with an ideological predisposition. The only difference being that in her case the predisposition is to valorise women's existence.

I don't have any problem with her doing that, but it seems to me it is a project, a call for further investigation, rather than a proof of anything. By the end of the lecture she is arguing that women have a different way of experiencing sexuality, and that they therefore may need a different way of speaking, a langage to supplant the existing langue. Which of course is where the lecture interfaces with literature.

The lecture ends on reflections on religious attitudes towards women, in particular the Catholic Church's views on contraception, abortion and women priests:
 A woman celebrating the eucharist with her mother, sharing with her the fruits of the earth she/they have blessed, could be delivered of all hatred or ingratitude towards her maternal genealogy, could be consecrated in her identity and her female genealogy. (p 540)
Well, yes, could be, and it would be great if that happened. But it's all built on such shaky foundations I don't have much faith in it.

20 March 2010

Baudelaire - A une Dame Créole

This was the first-written of the poems in FdM, a result of Baudelaire's trip to Réunion. In many ways, it's a fairly bland courtly love exercise; the poet argues that the Creole lady in question has beauty that would make French society take notice. But then the last line is so problematic for us, now.

Au pays parfumé que le soleil caresse,
J'ai connu, sous un dais d'arbres tout empourprés
Et de palmiers d'où pleut sur les yeux la paresse,
Une dame créole aux charmes ignorés.

Son teint est pâle et chaud; la brune enchanteresse
A dans le cou des airs noblement maniérés;
Grande et svelte en marchant comme une chasseresse,
Son sourire est tranquille et ses yeux assurés.

Si vous alliez, Madame, au vrai pays de gloire,
Sur les bords de la Seine ou de la verte Loire,
Belle digne d'orner les antiques manoirs,

Vous feriez, à l'abri des ombreuses retraites
Germer mille sonnets dans le coeur des poètes,
Que vos grands yeux rendraient plus soumis que vos noirs.
In the perfumed country which the sun caresses,
I knew, under a canopy of crimson trees
And palms from which indolence rains into your eyes,
A Creole lady whose charms were unknown.

Her complexion is pale and warm; the dark enchantress
Affects a noble air with the movements of her neck.
Tall and slender, she walks like a huntress;
Her smile is calm and her eye confident.

If you went, Madame, to the true land of glory,
On the banks of the Seine or along the green Loire,
Beauty fit to ornament those ancient manors,

You'd make, in the shelter of those shady retreats,
A thousand sonnets grow in the hearts of poets,
Whom your large eyes would make more subject than your slaves.

Again, translation tactics reveal some of the problem. In this translation, Aggeler translates "noirs" as "slaves". Roy Campbell (1952) makes them "negro slaves", while Geoffery Wagner (1974) has "Blacks". Another significant difference is that Campbell displaces the word. In the original, it's the last word, and that makes it particularly jarring to modern ears.

There have been warning signs: exoticism is connoted in the first quatrain, and it's personalised in the rhyme enchanteresse/chasseresse. The Lady is seen as different (and we could note that she's a very inert presence throughout).

But in the last line, Edward Said might say that the foundation of this Lady's wealth is made explicit, and what's shocking is that it's presented as a fact of nature, rather than of politics or violence. These days, you can't raise the subject of slavery without signalling some attitude towards it. The expression is so flat and bathetic. And if the Lady is inert, how much more so are the "noirs"?

We could waste many hours discussing how Baudelaire's contemporaries would have read this, but now, having read and thought about this a lot, I think the last line of this sonnet is not reconcilable these days. We don't have a framework of understanding for it, and so probably have to shrug and pass on to the next poem. That's quite a serious conclusion, implying that certain works are incompatible with a given cultural formation. Yet we'd have no problem in saying that an eighteenth century audience would have no way of understanding the Cantos. Why should we assume that all we do, across centuries, is gain understanding? There comes a point when the difference between our understanding and the understanding of the culture that created a work is so fundamental that we'd be better off not trying. Another example might be Shakespeare's comic banter.

If we don't do this, we may find ourselves doing a C S Lewis - attempting to become a contemporary reader. I have doubts about the possibility of doing so, and even bigger doubts about the worth of it. We don't (well, I don't) read literature to learn about the society that created it, but because there is something in it that is relevant to us, now.

I'll probably come back to this. I'm aware that there's a hidden question here: doesn't the fact that I can recognise a difference between our understanding and that of Baudelaire's time require me to have some knowledge of the understanding of Baudelaire's time? I've a feeling this isn't an insuperable problem, though.

18 March 2010

Structure of Les Fleurs du Mal

A fairly factual entry, this: to note the parts of FdM (the 1857 edition). The book is divided into five main sections, after the dedication and the introductory poem, "Au Lecteur".

The largest, "Spleen et Idéal" is largely about the contrast between ideal love, and love as it must be experienced in Baudelaire's decadent world.

Then, in "Les Fleurs du Mal", the focus is more on victims of this world. One way of recuperating "La Martyre" for example is to see it as the depiction of the result of the violence that the world of ennui and spleen can cause.

A short section, "Révolte" contains three poems on religious themes, followed by "Le Vin" and "La Mort".

A whole new section, "Tableaux Parisiens" was added in the edition of 1861.

We have changed

A very quick entry, just to note this link:

The Guardian's theatre critic making the point that a critic's response to a play largely depends on their experience, past and present. Relevant, of course, to any reader-response theory.

17 March 2010

Baudelaire (3) - sadism

Well, durr, no prizes to me for spotting a sadistic strain in Les Fleurs du Mal. I'm going to look at two poems which are both too long to quote in full: "A celle qui est trop gaie" and "Une martyre".

The first is in "Spleen et idéal", while the second is in the second part of the collection, "Les Fleurs du mal".

"A celle qui est trop gaie" was one of the poems condemned by the legal process against the 1857 edition for offence to public morality. Baudelaire's note suggests that the judges thought it had a reference to syphilis. Initially the poem is a basic love/hate lament: the loved one is too happy; why can't she share the poet's misery? Just like a bright garden can lead him to crush a flower underfoot, so her beauty can lead him to cruelty and violence, albeit only imagined. But how imagined! These are the last three quatrains (of nine).
Ainsi je voudrais, une nuit,
Quand l'heure des voluptés sonne,
Vers les trésors de ta personne,
Comme un lâche, ramper sans bruit,

Pour châtier ta chair joyeuse,
Pour meurtrir ton sein pardonné,
Et faire à ton flanc étonné
Une blessure large et creuse,

Et, vertigineuse douceur!
À travers ces lèvres nouvelles,
Plus éclatantes et plus belles,
T'infuser mon venin, ma soeur!

Thus I should like, some night,
When the hour for pleasure sounds,
To creep softly, like a coward,
Toward the treasures of your body,

To whip your joyous flesh
And bruise your pardoned breast,
To make in your astonished flank
A wide and gaping wound,

And, intoxicating sweetness!
Through those new lips,
More bright, more beautiful,
To infuse my venom, my sister!
Again, that's the straight translation by William Aggeler.

It's hard to read and hard to translate. The basic meaning is blatantly sadistic, and even if we say that everyone has violent thoughts, the expression of them here is detailed. It's worth looking at some of the other translations.
And so, one night, I'd like to sneak,
When night has tolled the hour of pleasure,
A craven thief, towards the treasure
Which is your person, plump and sleek.

To punish your bombastic flesh,
To bruise your breast immune to pain,
To farrow down your flank a lane
Of gaping crimson, deep and fresh.

And, most vertiginous delight!
Into those lips, so freshly striking
And daily lovelier to my liking —
Infuse the venom of my sprite.
(Roy Campbell)
Likewise, some evening, I would creep,
When midnight sounds, and everywhere
The sighing of lovers fills the air,
To the hushed alcove where you sleep,

And waken you by violent storm,
And beat you coldly till you swooned,
And carve upon your perfect form,
With care, a deep seductive wound —

And (joy delirious and complete!)
Through those bright novel lips, through this
Gaudy and virgin orifice,
Infuse you with my venom, sweet.
(George Dillon)
Thus I would wish, one night,
When the voluptuary's hour sounds,
To crawl like a coward, noiselessly,
Towards the treasures of your body,

In order to correct your gay flesh
And beat your unbegrudging breast,
To make upon your starting thigh
A long and biting weal,

And, sweet giddiness,
Along those newly-gaping lips
More vivid and more beautiful,
Inject my venom, O my sister!
(Geoffrey Wagner)
I think there's a general squeamishness about "Une blessure large et creuse", which Aggeler translates quite straightforwardly as "A wide and gaping wound". Actually "deep" would be better than "gaping", but nonetheless, at least he depicts it with the same kind of forensic accuracy that the original has. Compare it with "a lane of / Gaping crimson, deep and fresh" or "a deep seductive wound".

"Une martyre" purports to (and perhaps does) describe a drawing by an old master, depicting a corpse lying on a bed, its head removed and placed on a "table de nuit". Reading this the first time I didn't notice that the gender of the body isn't explicitly revealed until late in the poem. Before then there have been suggestions, growing in strength, but I'm sure you can already guess that it turns out to be a woman. A young, beautiful woman, at that. And I didn't deliberately try to guess, but I knew well before the explicit revelation ("Elle est bien jeune encor!").

So, the woman in the painting has been killed. The poet ponders how she died:

L'homme vindicatif que tu n'as pu, vivante,
Malgré tant d'amour, assouvir,
Combla-t-il sur ta chair inerte et complaisante
L'immensité de son désir?

Réponds, cadavre impur! et par tes tresses roides
Te soulevant d'un bras fiévreux,
Dis-moi, tête effrayante, a-t-il sur tes dents froides
Collé les suprêmes adieux?
The vengeful man whom you could not with all your love
Satisfy when you were alive,
Did he use your inert, complacent flesh to fill
The immensity of his lust?

Reply, impure cadaver! and by your stiffened tresses
Raising you with a fevered arm,
Tell me, ghastly head, did he glue on your cold teeth
The kisses of the last farewell?
(Aggeler's translation)
Again, there's the notion that love finally expresses itself in extreme violence.

It's disturbing obviously, but unlike some of the translations we have to look at it straight on. I don't think you can avoid the conclusion that in both these poems women's bodies are seen as capable of giving pleasure but that may need to be at the cost of their lives. I think, on the whole, it's better to be dehumanised by being seen as a mountain, than by being killed or wounded. In all cases, however, there is a move to deny the independence and will of the woman; they are troublesome.

Good grief, I'm liking Baudelaire the person less and less the more I read of Baudelaire the poet.

16 March 2010

Baudelaire (2)

I'm enjoying this week of Baudelaire. My task means that I have to know about the biography, though, which I'd normally pay less attention to. But it is interesting. As we proceed through FDM we find more reflections of Baudelaire's views of women. In my previous post, the poem was inspired by Jeanne Duval. Another woman in Baudelaire's life was Apollinaire Sabatier, aka La Présidente, who was a respected courtesan and hostess. According to French Wikipedia, everyone who knew her praised her beauty, goodness and joy. Finally, she "yielded" to Baudelaire, with unsurprising consequences. He wrote to her:
Il y a quelques jours, tu étais une divinité, ce qui est si commode, ce qui est si beau, si inviolable. Te voilà femme maintenant... (A few days ago you were a divinity, all that is right, beautiful, inviolable. Now you are just a woman.)
And he memorialised her thus:

Que diras-tu ce soir, pauvre âme solitaire,
Que diras-tu, mon coeur, coeur autrefois flétri,
À la très belle, à la très bonne, à la très chère,
Dont le regard divin t'a soudain refleuri?

— Nous mettrons notre orgueil à chanter ses louanges:
Rien ne vaut la douceur de son autorité
Sa chair spirituelle a le parfum des Anges
Et son oeil nous revêt d'un habit de clarté.

Que ce soit dans la nuit et dans la solitude
Que ce soit dans la rue et dans la multitude
Son fantôme dans l'air danse comme un flambeau.

Parfois il parle et dit: «Je suis belle, et j'ordonne
Que pour l'amour de moi vous n'aimiez que le Beau;
Je suis l'Ange gardien, la Muse et la Madone.»

What will you say tonight, poor solitary soul,
What will you say, my heart, heart once so withered,
To the kindest, dearest, the fairest of women,
Whose divine glance suddenly revived you?

— We shall try our pride in singing her praises:
There is nothing sweeter than to do her bidding;
Her spiritual flesh has the fragrance of Angels,
And when she looks upon us we are clothed with light.

Be it in the darkness of night, in solitude,
Or in the city street among the multitude,
Her image in the air dances like a torch flame.

Sometimes it speaks and says: "I am fair, I command
That for your love of me you love only Beauty;
I am your guardian Angel, your Muse and Madonna."

It's different. The poet transforms this woman, not into a mountainside, but into something ethereal, a "fantome", and her flesh becomes spiritual. She is idealised out of existence. The last line possibly gives the game away: this is a Catholic poem. That's an over-simplification, of course, but suggests that the influence of that religion persists and will turn up elsewhere.

15 March 2010

Baudelaire - La Géante

I'm reading Les Fleurs du Mal by way of a bet with myself. Can I learn enough about Baudelaire in a week to outdo the contestant who has chosen this as a specialist subject on Mastermind on Friday?

As a result I have come across this poem.

Du temps que la Nature en sa verve puissante
Concevait chaque jour des enfants monstrueux,
J'eusse aimé vivre auprès d'une jeune géante,
Comme aux pieds d'une reine un chat voluptueux.

J'eusse aimé voir son corps fleurir avec son âme
Et grandir librement dans ses terribles jeux;
Deviner si son coeur couve une sombre flamme
Aux humides brouillards qui nagent dans ses yeux;

Parcourir à loisir ses magnifiques formes;
Ramper sur le versant de ses genoux énormes,
Et parfois en été, quand les soleils malsains,

Lasse, la font s'étendre à travers la campagne,
Dormir nonchalamment à l'ombre de ses seins,
Comme un hameau paisible au pied d'une montagne.

At the time when Nature with a lusty spirit
Was conceiving monstrous children each day,
I should have liked to live near a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous cat at the feet of a queen.

I should have liked to see her soul and body thrive
And grow without restraint in her terrible games;
To divine by the mist swimming within her eyes
If her heart harbored a smoldering flame;

To explore leisurely her magnificent form;
To crawl upon the slopes of her enormous knees,
And sometimes in summer, when the unhealthy sun

Makes her stretch out, weary, across the countryside,
To sleep nonchalantly in the shade of her breasts,
Like a peaceful hamlet below a mountainside.
(This translation by William Aggeler and several more poetic translations can be found at I've chosen this one for its literalness.)

One thing the poem immediately illustrates is how hard it is to ignore biographical readings. The underlying story of Baudelaire's life was his relationship with his mother, complicated by her second marriage to a military man who seems to have been the antithesis of Baudelaire himself. It's the kind of upbringing that any amateur psychologist would see as ideal ground for producing a gay man, but Baudelaire was excessively heterosexual. You could use these poems as evidence towards an analysis of Baudelaire's sexuality, but I don't think that should be the purpose of criticism.

You can, however, legitimately use the context in which the poem appears. In the sequence of the 1857 edition it immediately follows "L'Idéal", in which the poet suggests that Lady Macbeth is more to his taste than the pale white roses of Gavarni's society drawings. So we can reasonably say that the poems at this point are exploring ideals of femaleness.

The first stanza refers to more ancient times; suggesting not just the mythological reality of giants, but also a lack in the present. Even without the biographical knowledge, we see here an inversion of normal relations: giants are normally male, and the image of a "voluptuous cat" is inherently female.

The second stanza continues this: the giantess is valued for her size, and her terribleness. But there's some admixture of humidity with flame.

In the third stanza, the woman is visualised as landscape. I suppose you could say that the poet expresses a kind of ownership of the landscape/woman; he climbs over it/her, with no regard for her wishes. In fact the transformation by metaphor removes her ability to even have any wishes or opinions. She is inert.

So a feminist reading of this poem is entirely plausible, and would regard it as objectifying the imagined woman, and lamenting perhaps that in modern times women aren't big-kneed and passive.

And yet, the image of the speaker is a bit pathetic. The female figure is unmoved by the male exploration. He seems irrelevant to her. The images of the man as cat and sleeping village are far from virile. The poem is certainly not a celebration of male power. On the contrary, you could see it, even without knowing what we know about Baudelaire's life, as an expression of fear and sexual ambiguity. I'm not (honestly I'm not) using this to help me understand Baudelaire the man. Why would I want to do that?

08 March 2010

MCT: Patrocinio P Schweickart

Oh, those American names! I love the way she kept that P in the middle, just to avoid confusion, no doubt, with all the other Patricinio Schweickarts. The essay, "Reading ourselves; toward a feminist theory of reading" is actually easier to read than her name suggests.

She begins by saying that reader-response criticism, in either of its forms, elides questions of class, race and sex, proposing a privileged reader, who we may take to be white middle class. Incidentally, she talks of a divergence in reader-response views over the relative importance of the reader and the writer. I hadn't seen that. According to this, Stanley Fish and others see the reader as holding the controlling interest, while for Iser, Poulet and Riffaterre, it's the writer. (She quotes from Poulet, who still seems to me to be way off the mark.) Later in the essay she suggests that this language of control or domination is itself part of a patriarchal approach.

But the major part of the essay concerns two topics, which she thinks have to be separated: women's reading of male texts; and women's reading of female texts. She suggests that women can learn to read against male texts; by seeing the patriarchal assumptions they can reclaim what is more essential in them. There's a certain amount of reflection on her personal experience here. Why can she still enjoy reading D H Lawrence?

There's a lot more to discuss here. I wouldn't question the starting premise that a lot of male writing is inherently patriarchal, but in my liberal way I'd prefer to think that good writing always allows readers to read against it.

The second "chapter", as she puts it, is the story of how women read women. She develops a view that reading becomes much more a process of sharing. I suspect the arguments here are fallilble, for the same reason as Poulet's are.

What's obviously missing is any discussion of men reading women. It does happen, you know.

Some of the closing comments are about whether this is all rubbish anyway, since deconstructionism means that any view is equally valid. She seems to share my view here: if that's true, it's really boring, so let's act as if it isn't. She's happy to use a version of the interpretive community as the validation mechanism.

MCT: Michael Riffaterre

An entirely new name to me, Riffaterre seems to have remained fairly loyal to the semiotic approach. This essay, from 1985, after a heavy-going start turns out to be a clever and detailed examination of how translation practice highlights the "presuppositions" which are present in any literary text. This leads to the essay's title "Transposing presuppositions on the semiotics of literary translation", which really needs more work.

Let's start with the final sentence:
Perhaps the simplest way to state the difference between literary and non-literary translation is to say that the latter translates what is in the text, whereas the former must translate what the text only implies. 
The things the literary text implies are, broadly speaking, what Riffaterre means when he talks of presuppositions. For example there is an "intertext", which is the background of knowledge that a native reader may have.

The first example he looks at comes from Milton's translation of an ode of Horace. I'll skip over that to the second, which is a passage from Catullus. Depicting the moment when the Nereid Thetis sees and falls in love with Peleus, he argues that the word used to describe her partial nakedness (nutricum) has in Latin unavoidable connotations of breastfeeding, so puts motherhood forward as a concern of the poem. Nutricum literally means nurse; but in Latin it can (just about) be used metonynically to mean breast. In English, you can't do that; there just isn't a word that can hold both meanings. Riffaterre doesn't offer his own solution to this, but in the second example, he does

and this is where the essay really started to grab me. He looks at a tiny extract from a poem by Maurice Fombeure (again, never heard of him. Apparently a mid-20th century lyric poet.) One word, septembrales, is considered. Every educated Frenchman would know that this is a coinage by Rabelais, is the only adjective derived from a month's name, and connotes with wine (Rabelais's usage is in the phrase purée septembrale, a euphemism for wine.)

There's no equivalent word in English that contains both a month and the connotation of wine, so he translates "brumes septembrales" into "mists of the vintage-season".

Both examples, then, are evidence of the importance of the reader's context to understand the full implications of a literary work. I think that's the most useful thing to be taken from the essay, and you could make the point without using the term presuppositions, which seems to me too vague while appearing to be explanatory. The piece is also useful for the view on translation it gives. As always, close examination of difficult passages is enlightening.

I've now looked at how Peter Green translates the Catullus passage. In a quite apposite demonstration of Riffaterre's view, he has the Nereids "mother-naked to breasts and below", expressing the maternal theme in a slightly transposed way, and also, I suppose, keeping some of the awkwardness that "nutricum" has.

02 March 2010

MCT: Geoffrey Hartman

Hartman, like Paul de Man, was a member of the deconstructionist school associated with Yale University. He should have taught de Man something about clarity. The essay here, "The interpreter's Freud", was originally given as a lecture, and is included in a collection called Easy Pieces.

He talks about a passage from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and one of Wordsworth's Lucy poems, "A slumber did my spirit steal".

First he looks at how Freud's dream interpretation does not reduce the dream to a simple statement of meaning, but actually complicates it, searching out and reconciling references. Then he writes, extremely perceptively, about the poem, commenting on his own reading to show that again he is exploring a range of associations that the words of the poem (and its layout on the page) throw up.

The gap in the essay is any sense of where to stop, or of how to evaluate which associations are useful or meaningful. I think there's a suggestion that you shouldn't do such an evaluation. It's part of the general drift of post-structuralist deconstructionism that all associations are valid, and that it's not possible to claim more importance for any of them.

I still don't think that can be true, or that, even if we suspect it is true, it's a useful line to follow. It's similar to the (I think) undefeatable suggestion that all actions are determined by past actions. It's no fun to hold that view, and in practice people always reflect on human actions as if they are free. Similarly, critics always and inevitably act as if some reading of a poem is a better fit. And, in practice, critics and theorists understand that some literature is better than others, in whatever sense you want to give that 'better'.  De Man talked unentertaingly about resistance to theory. One of the reasons for such resistance is that it's no fun to hold a totally relativistic view, which is what deconstructionism seems to tend towards, in its most fundamentalist form.

MCT: Lyotard and de Man

I'm back with MCT after a break, and the first essay, by Jean-François Lyotard is "Answering the question: what is postmodernism".

The simplest answer to the question is that it is the means by which modernism supersedes itself. So, Picasso was postmodern in relation to Cézanne. Unfortunately for me, Lyotard doesn't leave it there: "I would like not to remain with this slightly mechanistic meaning of the word." (p 418)

He introduces the concept of the sublime, which seems curiously old-fashioned and initially out of place. The sentiment of the sublime
takes place ... when the imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept. [...] We can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to 'make visible' the absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate. Those are Ideas of which no presentation is possible. (p 417)
This comes from the section headed "Realism", and it seems to be part of an analysis of why realism has to be superseded. In the section headed "The postmodern", Lyotard looks at the way Proust and Joyce attempt to make the unrepresentable perceptible; Proust by way of sacrificing the identity of consciousness, Joyce by sacrificing the identity of writing. These discussions are barely longer than my summary; clearly Lyotard had better thought-out bases for these views, which might have made clearer what he means. But both are representatives of the modern:
Modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unrepresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. [...]
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unrepresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms. [...] The [postmodern] writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. (p 419 - 420 emphasis in original)
I think this is deeply flawed reasoning. Part of the time, Lyotard is saying that postmodernism is the mechanism by which modernism arrives. But then he seems to be saying that this postmodernism, that we're experiencing now, is different. I think it's right to say that every new modernism has its new rules, which only become apparent after the work has been around for a while; that applies to Ezra Pound, for example, but also applied to Sterne. I could also question his separation of content and form.

The other point about postmodernism that Lyotard is known for, not mentioned in this essay, is that it "rejects meta-narratives", which are described in the editors' introduction as "any explanatory framework taken to connect separate items for analysis usually on the basis of some imposed value system." (p 411)  Now, that doesn't sound right, but I have nothing here to expand on that.

The second essay "The resistance to theory", by Paul de Man, was written in English, and so at least proves that translation is not a necessary ingredient of unintelligibility. It's a horrible piece of writing. It looks at the reaction (in USA) to theoretical approaches to literature, using a lot of the concepts of classical poetics and rhetoric.The argument is essentially non-theoretical approaches don't have the tools in their box to do the job properly, but that resistance to theory shouldn't be deplored because resistance is inherent in theory itself.

I really disliked this essay (can you tell?). It goes on a lot but says very little.