Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Joseph and the Angel

There's a show of Valentin de Boulogne's paintings at the Met. Valentin (1591-1632) was a French Caravaggist twenty years younger than Michelangelo Merisi. They said there'd never been a show devoted to him before. He was pretty great. Here's "The Dream of Saint Joseph," as he is prompted by an angel to take his family and fly into Egypt. (The rest before the flight into Egypt.)

I think it's a great example of something close to the "Dream of the Burning Child" that Freud, and then Lacan, analyze so wonderfully, and shows the relation of that analysis to allegory (unsurprising, I guess, that there's a connection between dream and allegory). The angel is urging Joseph to wake and fly, but it is only in the dream that he can see the angel. We can see him because we are not part of that reality; we viewers recognize the dream because we belong to our own dream of human life, so far removed from the salvational history that this episode is part of. We want him to wake from our life, in which we share his dream of the angel, to go and save Mary and Jesus.

And yet even in our dream of the angel, we're not in his dream world. The angel may be in both worlds, or all worlds: his dream, our dream, reality itself. The angel of course would be invisible in reality -- or how could we know, as we do because we see him, that this is Joseph's dream? But he is its emissary, and therefore can wake him. But the angel that wakes him cannot wake us, and when Joseph awakens, the angel will disappear from our dream world too.

So, like so much Counter Reformation art, this painting shows the everyday truth of human life -- it's evanescence. The father of a newborn is asleep, exhausted, as one is. Some dream of the young man to come already haunts him, as he wakes up (in his dream) to the fact that the present is absolutely fragile, already past, and the future is already present. He looks so old -- is that part of his dream too? The age he'll be when he goes to see this painting with his son home from college for Thanksgiving? Or is that already the truth, so that like the friendly ghost Caspar Goodwood, he's been aged thirty years on the spot? Not "Come up and be dead," but: Wake up and be old! that's the demand the child makes, or rather that the father dreams the child makes. It's a wish-fulfillment, it's the demand the father wants the child to make, dreams he makes. He dreams that the child will live and thrive, and wakes up, old and exhausted, to try to make that dream come true.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Anxiety of Moral Influence

Eliot challenging the die-hard defenders of Milton: "The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to make upon Milton is not intended for such persons, who cannot understand that it is more important, in some vital re­spects, to be a good poet than to be a great poet."

Milton's God, praising the Son who has:
                                                  been found
By Merit more then Birthright Son of God,
Found worthiest to be so by being Good,
Farr more then Great or High. (3.308-11)
As often in Book 3, the Father (manifester of Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is echoing the prompts the Son has given him, here the Son's earlier warning that should he destroy humanity:
wilt thou thy self
Abolish thy Creation, and unmake,
For him, what for thy glorie thou hast made?
So should thy goodness and thy greatness both
Be questiond and blaspheam'd without defence. (3.162-66)
So Eliot's distinction comes from Milton.  Just saying.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"In a Station of the Metro" I -- antipodean metaphor

“If one thinks of strange scenery, then painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonders of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.”
—Dong QiChang
How do you know which is tenor and which vehicle in the following juxtaposition?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Of course, you'll know the title, and so you'll think you know the answer. The faces in the crowd in a station at the Metro as Pound watches the train pull in are (like) petals on a wet, black bough.

But without the title, you might be able to reverse it, right? Looking at petals on a wet, black bough, watching them come into your attention, taking on shape and focus, whether in a garden or on a scroll -- you might have a vision of the ghostly faces in a subway car in a station of the Metro.

The scroll is yet another part of the metaphor, the way Pound is using it, and part of the brilliance of the poem. Since this is actually referring to a station of the Metro, that means that in this metaphor, "petals on a wet, black bough" comprises the vehicle, with the faces in the crowd the tenor, the "true" if aestheticized reality perceived by the speaker's eye. (The speaker who sees these faces.) The vehicle in a metaphor is never actual -- otherwise it wouldn't be a metaphor -- and there's something right, perhaps, about the petals on a wet black bough not being actual, being instead the evanescent vanishing aesthetic vision into which the solid urban fact of the Metro station is transfigured. The transfiguration into an aesthetic vision is what the scroll would do anyhow. "Actual" petals and an "actual" scroll are equally unreal here. They're both visions of the aesthetic vision, so to speak. And of course that's what the scroll does anyhow. It takes real petals and transforms them into their brush-and-ink aesthetic counterpart.

But that's just what makes this metaphor antipodean. The crowd in the Metro is transformed into the solitude of mountains or the still greater solitude of the scrolls depicting the solitude of mountains through the representation of a single bough. The metaphor is apt because it reverses the tonality of what it describes. That's what I mean by an antipodean metaphor. All metaphors, as Donald Davidson points out, are false. But this one is the antipodes of what it is predicated of, and so its transformational power is total.

This is why I think Pound must have been alluding intentionally to "Daffodils," which does essentially the same thing, but in reverse. The crowd that Wordsworth sees is the crowd of daffodils which belong to the lonely places he wanders. So where Pound's crowds predicate the metaphor of petals under lonely rainclouds, Wordsworth's daffodils predicate the metaphor of the crowd.

In both cases, though, it's solitude that wins out over the urban jostle. Why is that? Why do goose and gander both fly to the faraway reaches of the scene?

Because they're both poems, and those solitudes are "the one and only metaphor" (Szentkuthy) for the wonders of brush and ink.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Descartes, Milton

Not what you would think. Space, as in "Space, the final frontier...," the absolute space that Newton posited, is a word first used in this way by Milton:
Space may produce new Worlds
says Satan, imagining Earth, our world, as such a new world in space. (It's worth recalling that Galileo, whom Milton visited, is the only contemporary person named in Paradise Lost: other than he, Charlemagne and Columbus are the most recent figures mentioned.) Milton's slightly older contemporary Descartes was thinking about space at the same time: measuring it with a coordinate system, and declaring that the concept itself was incoherent. There had to be ether everywhere to make distance possible. If space is empty, it's nothing, and if it's nothing, there's nothing to measure, and nothing there. If the sun is an AU away, it's because an AU of ether separates us from the sun, and we can measure the depth or length of that quantity of ether. (I think a similar argument about the strange emptiness of space is part of the inflationary theory of the early universe, but that's just me being wooly-headed, probably.) Anyhow, it may be that Milton also couldn't quite countenance empty space, because he has God say, six books later:
Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space.
So Milton fills space as well, with God. Or does he? God does "my self retire" to give way to freedom. If that retirement is absolute, as Empson suggests it might be, i.e. that God might "abdicate," then we're in Gnostic territory, and space becomes a true abyss. So it may be that Milton's thinking anticipates Einstein's even as it parallels Descartes' and Newton's.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Love and MacGuffins and Truth

I was just thinking about the interesting and counterintuitive use of MacGuffins in film noir.

A little background. Hitchcock -- and most suspense writers -- use MacGuffins to retard the love story. A MacGuffin pulls a narrative down a track criss-crossing the love story that will make the movie end happily. We want the happy ending, but not too soon -- we want (as George Ainslie says in his great essay on "Money as MacGuffin") to build up an appetite for it not ruined by being satisfied too soon. That's why we go to the movies instead of just day-dreaming all the time: we can have anything we want in our day-dreaming restaurant, and so we never end up really wanting anything. But movies -- even romantic comedies -- delay the happy ending and make it all the more rewarding by doing so. Still, as Ainslie says, it's not just a question of waiting for the happy ending: it's seeing it blocked, and often more and more blocked as the tell-tale compression of minutes that remain (to allude to Northanger Abbey) seems to make the happy ending less and less likely, more and more a mere daydream. That's how climaxes work: there's no way out! Ginger Rogers has actually married Bedini. Almost as bad as when Ingrid Bergman actually marries Alex Sebastian. (I am using stars' names and character names advisedly: part of the point is the star we want to see in a happy ending in this movie marries: some other character, and not the other star.)

So because we don't control the fiction, we worry that we won't get the reward the desire (or "literary need," as I've been calling it in earlier posts) for which has been building and building. Okay -- that's one way of describing the most basic plot: want something and wait for it. But what's great about Hitchcock, and Hitchcockian plots in general, is the way he counterpoints that desire with another one: the desire to know the significance of the MacGuffin.

It's not that the MacGuffin is just an objective the hunt for which brings the lovers together. That's a pretty standard plot too, and it makes sense and it works. But in Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is always a puzzle. "What are the 39 Steps?" Why does the Lady Vanish -- what could her significance possibly be? What is it that James Mason is trying to sneak out of the country? What's in the wine bottles that makes them so significant? Of course we sometimes know what the objective (really) is in Hitchcock, but his movies seem deepest when we don't.

So this makes possible the interplay of two stories: one about love, the other about knowledge. (Vertigo telescopes them together in interesting ways.) The love story can end at any time if the lovers just walk away, which is just what the male characters keep urging: Carey Grant to Ingrid Bergman, and to Eva-Marie Saint, Robert Donat to Madeline Carroll. (Occasionally, and interestingly, it will go the other way, especially if the male star is Jimmy Stewart, doggedly ignoring the good advice of Kim Novak or Grace Kelly: but then she gets into it.) So we could get the reward of the love story with a happy ending if we gave up on the knowledge.

But we also want to know, so that we find ourselves torn between two conflicting preferences. Go away or search the wine cellar? Figure out what James Mason is up to, or check in to a lodge at Mt. Rushmore? And the audience always chooses knowledge, deferring and risking the love story in order to try to have it all. It's important that the knowledge is never worth it -- it's a gap more interesting than its solution. (How couldn't it be? Narratives about the search are always more interesting in their middles than in their endings. Mistah Kurtz, he boring (even when played by Marlon Brando); Alaska, she dead (spoiler, sorry!).

So the end of a Hitchcock movie gives you a quick -- a very quick -- revelation of what the MacGuffin really was. Our thirst for knowledge is slaked, and because that slaking can't be of the order of the desire it satisfies, the solution would be (often is) a disappointment if there weren's something else converging with that conclusion: the consummation of the love story. So the MacGuffin is the mechanical white rabbit (or undetached rabbit's foot, as in the Quinean Mission Impossible III) that leads us down its own track or rabbit hole to the deferred and longed-for conclusion.

So back to noir, and the femme fatale. The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin's formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing. Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it's the formal structure I'm interested in). They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with. And they're barely interested in the MacGuffins, the "dingus" as Spade calls it, at all. Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins. It's still a question of knowledge. Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why. So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or dersire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.

That means, of course, that noirs are about truth rather than erotic satisfaction. But the truth is about human character, not the value or history of the dingus (even if it's worth as much as Dr. Evil's "ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"). The noir detective uses the MacGuffin to find out the truth about human motivation. That truth is not erotic, and so the MacGuffin in noir doesn't lead us circuitously to erotic satisfaction: the detective uses the MacGuffin as a decoy that seems to map out that circuitous route, in order instead to undermine the erotic interest in favor of the truth. In Hitchcock the search for truth is a well-paced route to love. In noir the detective controls the pacing of the falsified love story through the MacGuffin in order to find the route to the truth.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Literary Need -- VI

You know how there are talismanic quotations that you know, sufficiently so that you don't quite think them through? I think that's partly a result of rhythm: strict endings complete a line (that's a rule of Indo-European metrics); and rhythms structure and sometimes anchor the remembered words.

I've always loved these lines of Stevens's, from "The Plain Sense of Things":
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.
Some time long ago I abbreviated them, without knowing it, as "The absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined, / Required, as a necessity requires." And it was only the first of those two pseudo-lines whose meaning I thought much about. The imagination would never be absent! To think so was to rejoin it, to imagine even that. "Disillusion as the last illusion," as Stevens says in a later poem. Or Beckett's: "Imagination dead, imagine!" (my punctuation).

The end of the poem, the end of my abbreviated version, was only what filled out the stirring, saving, Berkeleyan self-contradiction of trying to imagine the imagination absent.

But now I begin to wonder why the absence of the imagination was "required"? Why makes its absence, or imagining its absence, necessary?

I think if I thought about it at all that I took "required" to mean just a way of repeating had in "had to be imagined." It is required that you do euthanize your faith. But that's because I didn't really pay attention to the as of the last line. As a necessity required. We need to imagine necessity too. Ananke is not the iron law we cannot escape. It is the law we imagine we suffer under, but we need to imagine it. The rat can come out to see, whenever it wants to: it's a placidly, self-contained Rilkean animal, a denizen of the immediate.

But we need necessity, and the only question is whether our need for it is enough to count as need -- as we need it to be.