Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Snow on the ground, people. Snow on the ground. Like boots....

The bloggers are dropping like flies, and I'm barely hanging on with my little posts from Benjamin, etc. But I declare to you now that I have not yet begun to blog in earnest.

I'm trying to decide right now exactly which group of poets I want to read over the summer for my 'A' exam (no, it's not necessarily an exam about "A", though that's definitely one of the books on my list of possibles). The answer I give will probably determine the course of my dissertation and beyond that, a sizable chunk of my academic career. There are three major candidates/periods/movements which I could profitably unpack within my rather loose conception of pastoral as a mode rather than a genre (though there are genre connections as well). By "pastoral as a mode" I mean a specifically utopian poetics that attempts to reclaim the "natural" by means other than, or at least not necessarily including, the Romantic egotistical sublime. There's a psychoanalytic vision of pastoral that is described, and rejected as a fantasy, by Lacan in his Ethics of Psychonalysis:
[T]hrough a whole side of its action and its doctrine, psychoanalysis effectively presents itself as [the search for a natural ethics], as tending to simplify some difficulty that is external in origin, that is of the order of a misrecognition or indeed of a misunderstanding, as tending to restore a normative balance with the world—something that the maturation of the instincts would naturally lead to…. The domain of the pastoral is never absent from civilization; it never fails to offer itself as a solution to the latter’s discontents. If I use that name, it is because over the centuries that is how it has happened to present itself openly. Nowadays, it is often masked; it appears for example in the more severe and more pedantic form of the infallibility of proletarian consciousness…. There is perhaps a good reason why we should reexamine the archaic form of the pastoral, reexamine a certain return to nature or the hope invested in a nature that you shouldn’t imagine our ancestors thought of in simpler terms than we do (88-9).
The "natural ethics" that Lacan posits are akin to the "natural law" Ernst Bloch described in a conversation with Adorno about utopia that I read in the Barnes & Noble Starbucks yesterday: "[T]here are two utopian parts: the social utopias as constructions of a condition in which there are no laboring and burdened people; and natural law, in which there are no humiliated and insulted people." Adorno goes on to point out that the most important condition of utopia is the miraculous elimination of death. But "the heaviness of death cannot be eliminated. All utopian thinking must be negative" and therefore he puts a ban on positivistic imaginings of utopia, arguing instead that "the essential function of utopia is a critique of what is present." All very familiar and what you'd expect from Adorno. I'm curious as to whether pastoral utopia is quite the pure fantasy of naturally bounded drives Lacan says it is, or the instrument of negative dialectics as Adorno appears to argue. One thing about the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil is that death is present ("Et in Arcadia ego" reads the inscription on a tomb in Poussin's painting, "Les Bergers d'Arcadie"). Is there an edge of "realism" then in this seemingly outmoded and obsolete genre?

Pastoral, as it was incisively described by Prof. Gordon Teskey in a Milton seminar I took my first semester at Cornell, is the genre in which extraneous elements (that is, the social, or at least the polis) are extracted from life and we are left with the basics: sex and death. Virgil's shepherds lounge around, pant after nymphs or other shepherds, and mourn the deaths of still other shepherds. In opposition to this definition of pastoral is William Empson's conception of it as entirely social, as "proletarian literature," in fact: "The poetic statements of human waste and limitation, whose function is to give strength to see life clearly and so to adopt a fuller attitude to it, usually bring in, or leave room for the reader to bring in, the whole set of pastoral ideas. For such crucial literary achievements are likely to attempt to reconcile some conflict between the parts of a society; literature is a social process, and also an attempt to reconcile the conflicts of an indivdiual in whom those of society will be mirrored" (Some Versions of Pastoral 19). Seeing the complex in the simple is pastoral's most basic move; the most fundamental (though too often simplistic) approach to the one-many problem. Empson writes of "the tone of humility normal to pastoral":
"I now abandon my specialised feelings because I am trying to find better ones, so I must balance myself for the moment by imagining the feelings of the simple person. He may be in a better state than I am by luck, freshness, or divine grace; value is outside any scheme for the measurement of value because that too must be valued." Various paradoxes may be thrown in here; "I must imagine his way of feeling because the refined thing must be judged by the fundamental thing, because strength must be learnt in weakness and sociability in isolation, because the best manners are learnt in the simple life."
Empson's characteristic technique of "mental paraphrasing" here is a striking demonstration of the imperative to "imagine [the other's] way of feeling"; even more striking is the thoroughly postmodern or at any rate Nietzschean rejection of "scheme[s] for the measurement of value." At any rate, I find myself compelled by the dialectical nature of pastoral that is suggested here, mirroring as it does the dialectic between Marx and Freud: the imagination of social happiness coupled with the imagination of individual happiness. Vulgar Marxism, to be sure (is "Vulgar Freudianism" redundant?), but compelling.

So back to my original problem: which poets to read? Three major possibilities:

The 19th Century Americans

Basically Whitman and Dickinson, with maybe a little Longfellow and the Romantics for background. Emerson is huge. "Song of Myself" certainly ranges between extremes of individual sovereignty ("Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am") and extremes of identification with "simpler" others ("uneducated persons"). Dickinson is more subtle and I would have to read her in a more extended way than I have to understand her brand of utopian imagination, though I sense it's there. Who else? Melville? Thoreau of course. I could conceivably range up to William James and the pragmatists, who I intuit could be connected with the kind of phenomenological clearing of complexities that is pastoral's most basic move.

The High Modernists

The usual suspects. Lots of Stein, a fair bit of D.H. Lawrence (I'm still writing a paper on those two and their deployment of roses in their poetry for Doug Mao's seminar from last semester. It's coming, Doug!), Eliot (the master of anti-pastoral), Pound, lots of Williams, Crane. H.D., probably. Marianne Moore, certainly. Laura Riding might be interesting, and we've got her papers here at Cornell, which is a kind of bonus. And—he doesn't really belong here, but he doesn't really belong with the next group, either—I find myself thinking of Delmore Schwartz, of all people, in connection with this subject. An anxious urban pastoral that always falls short, a kind of Jewish premonition of Frank O'Hara's more successful gay pastoral. Eroticism of all kinds, but perhaps especially homo, seems associated with pastoral and I won't want to discount that.

The Objectivists

This strikes me right now as the most interesting option, but perhaps an overly trendy one. Oppen, Zukofsky, and Ronald Johnson (I know he's not even remotely an objectivist but I think I could make a case for him) are most immediately attractive; Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker are the most obvious choices for poets who seem to write in a thematically pastoral mode. Olson would get in there, and be the hinge to contemporaries who do what you might call Romantic Objectivism: Duncan and maybe Creeley could be described that way. This would be my opportunity to hunker down with some long, strange books this summer: The Maximus Poems, "A", ARK. I like it.

Will any of my fine theories survive contact with actual texts? This remains to be seen.

And an all too apt last quotation from Ernst Bloch: "Hope is the opposite of security."

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