Friday, February 16, 2007

Spent much of the week snowbound and sick, disinclined to do much beyond the necessary. Still cogitating on the baroque as a contemporary mode and what relevance, if any, it might have to the question of theatricality raised by Stan Apps, who has clarified the point that "mysterious theatricality" has less to do with religiosity than "a way of doing business," which can be secular or religious, Stalinist or Christian. I think that still leaves theatricality and ritual squarely within the realm of myth in the sense that Benjamin and Adorno use that word: an instrument for naturalizing domination. Yet there's an appealing side to myth too: myth taken reflexively, stripped of its ideological kernel—I think especially of the European mythic elements that comprise the modern literary genre of fantasy (dragons, knights, fairies, etc.). Myth remains a mode of meaning-making, but no longer demands our consent or forces our perceptions to conform to it. Similarly, "mysterious theatricality" is something with strong appeal, and worth celebrating, if it can somehow be drained of its ideological content. That "somehow" requires strong critical intervention, or at least the passing of time, as I alluded to in an earlier post.

We think of the baroque, of course, as a highly theatrical mode: opera was born in the baroque period, and its excesses of ornamentation, movement, and strong evocations of feeling seem theatrically dynamic: the architecture and sculpture of Bernini evoke the action and movement of the theater. At the same time, though the Baroque movement in history was largely an instrument of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, I still have a sense of its works as being so in excess of the ideological work they were intended to do as to undermine that ideology, or at least render it irrelevant to the aesthetic effects achieved. In other words, the Baroque is an urge of the modern, which is to say a product of the shift in the means of production toward the division of labor and the separation of the premodern Lebenswelt into logical, ethical, and aesthetic spheres. The ideological/ethical component of, say, Bach's B-Minor Mass (which is very much excessive of its ideological birthplace, being too long to perform as part of the liturgy, and being an essentially Catholic form in the hands of a Protestant composer) is still present in the work: but it's like a brain in which the corpus callosum has been severed so that there's no longer organic communication between the speech center (the left brain) and the image center (the right brain). In Lacanian terms, the given Symbolic (the Mass) has become disconnected, though still associated, with the Imaginary of the work. One recognizes in hearing it that the Christian Symbolic no longer provides an adequate representation, and so feels the disquieting/sublime presence of the Real.

I want to say, therefore, that an American baroque in poetry would be that which refuses to surrender the pleasures of mysterious theatricality, high oratory, ornament, and the excessive signifier, but which does not practice this theatricality as "a way of doing business" or accumulating power. The father of this baroque would have to be Wallace Stevens, especially the early Stevens of Harmonium, who is very much preoccupied with the beauty of ritual while foregrounding its emptiness at the same time. (The later Stevens might very well stand accused of trying to ideologize his poetics—I'll reserve judgment on this for the time being.) And so this train of thought has led me back to the American modernist who has meant the most to me as a poet, though not as a critic, strangely or not so strangely. Perhaps I've finally discovered a way to think him critically here.

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