Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Saddened to learn, via Mark, of the death of Ian Hamilton Finlay (obituary here, an article of Mark's here, and there are other Finlay materials available in Jacket 15), just as I was becoming interested in him as preparatory for the Ronald Johnson chapter of my dissertation. He was a fascinating full-contact practitioner of pastoral, an agoraphobe who literally withdrew to his garden (with the very un-Arcadian name of Little Sparta), from which he fought constant legal and rhetorical battles with the authorities and other artists. He seems to have been a kind of anti-Pound, self-imprisoned, whose sculptures include a brick Panzer tank with the logo Et in Arcadia ego; his obsession with fascist violence seems to have gotten him mistaken at times for a fascist himself. As Mark's article attests, Finlay's work bears the stamp of the authentic avant-garde insofar as his work in concrete poetry was seen as an attack on poetry-as-such by the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, who saw the visual as irreparably foreign to the linguistic (though class seems to enter into it; he didn't like Finlay's use of Glaswegian dialect in his earlier work either). Mark even goes so far as to say (in what's probably a pre-9/11 article but I can't quite be sure), "Finlay’s poetry is essentially a terrorist act." There is indeed a violence inherent in the idea of the avant-garde that has, for me, always been possible to link with the concealed violence of pastoral—the violent act of "clearing" and separating a natural space from the social totality. Fragmentation—breaking—as prerequisite for collage, especially the modernist collage that seeks to gesture toward a new totality. The bricoleur, arguably, picks up what's already broken, the junk lying around, and as such might represent the postmodernist position: the emphasis is on the partialness of the assemblage. The ecoleur that I posit as the agent of an avant-garde pastoral grafts the detritus (verbal and otherwise) of capitalism and state violence so that their network of relation forms a provisional Arcadian space. I don't know if this applies to Finlay; Mark writes, "Finlay’s aim, unlike Pound’s, is not to gesture back towards a lost historical unity, or some previous state of wholeness before the intervention of philistinism, or usura, or whatever: it is rather literally to create that scene of aesthetic and moral plenitude, to reinstate for the garden’s "reader" the classical wholeness towards which Keats’ 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' for instance, looks backward." There's something too settled in that notion of "wholeness." Ronald Johnson is more of an ecoleur perhaps because of the nature of working only in text, albeit text with visual elements: there's always a minimum quantity of the indeterminate in language that is fragmentary or syntactically disordered as Johnson's work is, which I think is crucial to pastoral provisionality. Finlay's texts are too firmly embedded, literally, in the context of his garden—a positive aesthetic, if not aestheticism—to vibrate as much as Johnson's do, to have the particular energy of a self-regulating ecosystem. I still haven't fully parsed, however, the ecoleur's relation to violence: if Finlay takes responsibility for the full implications of Stevens' "A. A violent order is a disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order," going so far as to provide the "pages of illustrations," does the ecoleur simply claim to be picking up the pieces left from the primal violence of some Big Other?

Anyway, Finlay leaves us with a great body of work and much to think about. I've been perusing Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer with great interest. The man himself was notoriously difficult; I can't help but find myself wondering if Little Sparta will now find itself open to the public sometime in the nearish future. If so, please order me up one ticket to Scotland.

1 comment:

edinedinburgh said...

As someone who knows/works with someone who knew IHF - sorry if that sounded tangential - thought I'd add sommat.

Given you're into IHF in a big way, you might already have 'Chapman' magazine, issue 78-79, dedicated to IHF, his 'Wars' as well as 'Little Sparta' with contributions from his son Alec and many others. If you don't, you can easily order a photocopy from us (no originals left) at: Chapman magazine, 4 Broughton Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, EH1 3RX; enclosing your details, plus a check for $20.00 (add $4.00 for airmail). Alternatively, just ask your good friend Theo Hummer - she's got a copy which she might lend you.

Sorry if that came off as an ad, but I work for the magazine and we tend to grab onto anyone evincing interest in what we do with tight, possibly overtight, hands.

Visiting Little Sparta? Let this page take care of it: http://www.littlesparta.co.uk/visits.htm

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