45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


Home


Curriculum Vita



Resources
Visual aids
Manuscripts




Courses


Link not working? please e-mail Darrend Brown

 

Statement for Modernism and Theory

An age of criticism is not an age of writing, nor an age of reading: it is an age of criticism. People still read, still write-and well; but for many of them it is the act of criticism which has become the representative or Archetypal act of the intellectual.
(Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 1953)

Forgive me for beginning on a personal note. But feeling old in this profession seems to impose the personal on one, especially if one has to offer general remarks. The problem for me is how not to rest in lament or nostalgia or complaint-probably pretty much the same state-when I reflect on the current state of literary studies. Therefore my first thought about this essay was to do what I could as a theorist to combat the various forms of "materialist" cultural studies now dominating the field. But if I could say something new about that topic, and this is a big "if," the odds are very good that it would not be heard.

I need a different path. I have to propose some model for future work that is compatible with the prevailing ideologies but without quite conforming to them. The not so young will realize the magnitude of this task.

The only way I can do that is to milk the personal for the little it is worth, then stage an effort at self-correction that I can propose as also a path for future work. I want to recall what first excited me as possibilities for professional study when I was leaving graduate school in the late 1960's. I will argue that the excitement younger critics find in the various forms of cultural criticism now dominating modernist studies is substantially like what I experienced, with one major difference. Ambitious critical work shaped by what seemed new in the late sixties tried to show that individual writers produced a thinking necessary for the culture, while our new theories minimize authorial agency, seeking to show how texts read in historical context bring to light significant aspects of the culture in which they are embedded. This is not a small difference. But I think stressing it tempts us to overlook the significant common elements linking the two models. Negatively they both insist that close reading in itself could not suffice because criticism has to contextualize its materials and show how whatever reading is performed addresses pressing problems within the culture. And positively this ambition leads to what I will call allegorical projects because in order to make visible the texts role in the culture critics have to provide a larger story into which the particular details fit. The particular links among details would be quite different-especially in the degree to which they stressed or minimized the specific achievements of authors as thinkers and as makers. Yet we should not ignore the shared model of satisfaction in developing the larger stories and in feeling that criticism was an act directly addressing profound cultural needs. I think this common model of satisfaction is one important reason critics could readily switch allegiances, say from deconstruction and other forms of postmodernist thematics to materialist and historicist projects.

After forty years of "advanced" criticism largely shaped by these allegorical models, it seems to me time to ask what those practices cost and how there might be alternative ways of honoring our concerns to make the work of criticism relevant to the manifest needs of our culture. While I cannot even touch on the variety of critical stances these forty years have produced, I can suggest that to the extent that they depend on allegorical frameworks to realize their cultural ambitions they are likely to generalize too quickly from the particular art object in order to make claims about the possible force of that particular in relation to overall cultural values and practices.[1] These generalizations obviously seem compelled to minimize the multi-faceted intensities, sympathies, and identifications the art makes possible. So for my positive argument I hope to show that there is much critical work still to be done from a primarily aesthetic perspective emphasizing the affective force of particular objects. That work will also have to be framed within general terms, but the framing will not a story the works share so much as the abstract need to address their particularity.

The stakes in this shift seem to me quite substantial. It should be clear that there are significant social benefits in society's developing agents capable of wide-ranging and deep concrete admirations, sympathies, and delights. It also matters that culture develop richer alternatives to the epistemic ideals dominant in academic culture since the Enlightenment. Epistemic orientations assume that the only thinking that matters for the social good is thinking structured by disciplines enabling them to secure knowledge claims and propose articulate models for solving problems and for dissolving conflict. I want instead to show we can finesse epistemic versions of inquiry so that we can concentrate on how particulars engage our capacities to respond to and reflect upon affective dimensions of our experience. Therefore I suggest that criticism concentrate on how the manner by which the work engages the world affords a different kind of matter.[2] Then the value of critical work need not depend directly on our showing that individual works participate in some general story or even some general struggle for how society views itself or forms its beliefs. We can argue that our criticism matters socially because it keeps vital and affords self-reflection on the many ways in which we live by other than epistemic values. Critics can promise to make readers aware of the powers and investments they are capable of as affective beings, and critics can promise that their work will provide challenges to develop abilities to respond more fully to what makes particular texts come alive for the imagination focusing on that specificity. This kind of work will not thematize social or philosophical issues, but it can try to make citizens more aware of their own capacities for self-enjoyment and for sympathy with a range of ways people are governed by cares, attachments, and projections of more satisfying lives. We have seen enough of ideas and arguments that we should be ready to try other routes to reducing violence and reconciling differences.

I will use two documents from the late sixties to illustrate how sophisticated criticism becomes allegorical and how the major critics in the sixties set ambitions that still govern how critics imagine their tasks. These two critical texts have very different emphases and even political commitments, but they were both instances of how European philosophy might be used to illuminate what in modernist writing could resist the nihilism that seemed infecting every aspect of cultural life early in the twentieth century. The major impact created by J. Hillis Miller's Poets of Reality was the demonstration that one could honor the complexity and imaginativeness of literary texts without the exhaustive close reading or thematics of paradox in which we were trained. One could treat writers as thinkers and treat their texts as aspects of dialectical processes realizing what powers that thinking might possess. Miller told a compelling story of how modernist writing, especially but not exclusively modernist poetry, engaged a modernity that posed a serious crisis of cultural nihilism, in the process developing a "journey beyond nihilism toward a poetry of reality" (1). On re-reading I was struck by how Miller's language could convincingly rise to the level of the immense crisis he posited, but only by composing an elaborate allegory: "When God and the creation become objects of consciousness, man becomes a nihilist. Nihilism is the nothingness of consciousness when consciousness becomes the foundation of everything" (3). And the triumph of technology is the ultimate mark of this regnant consciousness, since the culture comes to depend utterly on what it has made rather than on what might be encountered as given by the world. Yet, Miller shows, some modern writers have the courage and intelligence to make the "nihilism latent in our culture . appear as nihilism" (5). Then it becomes possible "to go beyond it by understanding it" (5). Writers can turn from the recesses of "subjectivism" in order to abandon "the independence of the ego (7). By learning " to "walk barefoot in reality" (as Wallace Stevens put it) they could accept a world that is fundamentally a surface of co-presence rather than the traditional divide between appearance and the promise of depth: "This space is the realm of the twentieth century poem," a "space in which things, the mind, and words coincide in the closest intimacy" (8).

Irving Howe is strikingly different in his tone-he does not cast himself as an academic to other academics-and in his broader perspective on modernist writing. But at the allegorical core of his account of modernism Howe turns to the same challenge posed by the writers' sense of the nihilism pervading modern social life. Howe begins the introduction to his anthology Literary Modernism with his characteristically keen attention to what writers feel as cultural imperatives:

Modern writers find that they begin to work at a moment when the culture is marked by a prevalent style of perception and feeling; and their modernity consists in a revolt against this prevalent style, an unyielding rage against the official order. (13)

Then he lists a series of reasons for that rage that all emphasize a sense of spiritual crisis forcing literature to play roles once reserved for theology and philosophy. For Howe, as for Lionel Trilling, the most important shift characterizing modernism is from the quest for truth to "writing as the purification of a sincerity at least capable of accurately portraying an individual's suffering and desires for change, whatever the objective conditions might bear" (19): "There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation" (16). For Miller that idealizing of personal speech would only exacerbate the subjectivism of the age. But as Howe warms to his topic he increasingly echoes Miller's concerns. He treats Modernism as being rooted in Romanticism but having to find alternatives to its transcendental hopes (21-22). Therefore modernity confronts an "extreme sense of historical impasse, the assumption that something about the experience of our ages is unique, a catastrophe without precedent" (15). The catastrophe is most pronounced in the dynamic that generates the emphasis on personal speech: for modern culture, "the object perceived seems always on the verge of being swallowed up by the perceiving agent, and the act of perception in danger of being exalted to the substance of reality" (14). Then Howe can address what happens in modernist poetry:

For the Symbolist poet, the archetypal figure in modernism, there is no question, however, of describing such an experience: for him the moment of illumination occurs only through the action of the poem, only through its thrust as a particular form. Nor is there any question of relating it to the experience of a life time, for it is unique, transient, available only the matter-perhaps more important, only in the moment of the poem. The poet does not transmit as much as he engages in a revelation. (27)

One feels here Howe's distaste for this symbolist project. Unlike Miller, he does not seem to believe in the efficacy of such revelation, but he is bound as a literary historian to accommodate himself to what hope the poets can hold out. It is almost as if Howe is convinced by Trilling's famous essay lamenting his students lack of discomfort with modernist demands on the spirit, so that his own unhappiness with this literary model is testimony to his authenticity in allying himself with it. (Trilling's essay is in fact reprinted in Howe's anthology.)

For the sixties this picture enabled a vision of the artist as hero. For our new century the critic has to play the heroic role, since only the critic can either make explicit the author's negativity or impose the necessary negativity in relation to those moments when authors give way to self-projection or utopian fantasies. Our allegorical stage is composed by setting literary examples in social contexts then allowing these contexts to provide the critical terms capable of resisting seduction by imaginary states so as to show what those efforts at seduction are trying to mask. That contemporary criticism seeks universalizing tales is most explicit in Frederic Jameson's claims about totalization. But critics who see themselves at the opposite pole to Jameson, most eloquently Judith Butler, are likely to develop their own universalizing tales of how some kind of otherness is necessary to save modernism from the fantasies of mastery inherent in its enabling philosophical allegories. And criticism becomes the discipline capable of producing the kind of historical consciousness that provides a vital sense of how that otherness has increasingly been evaded by the normalizing force of capital.

If I going to make claims about the dangers of allegory, I obviously have to worry the status of my own argument. Why is a claim about the importance of aesthetic particulars to society, especially to society still in the throes of nihilism not just another allegory? Simply put, there is an obvious difference between generalizations that support a particular argumentative claim and generalizations that labor to get particulars a hearing as particulars. This can be illustrated by just touching on deliciously complex materials. I think there is a huge difference between generalizations about the importance of particular others, and generalizations that make "the other" an ontological category. Similarly there is a huge difference between Heidgerean and Sartrean phenomenology that seeks to change our thinking about the nature of being and phenomenology in the spirit of Husserl that seeks to change our models for describing particulars. (The issues get immensely complicated here because both modes of phenomenology cast themselves as alternatives to the epistemic orientation that I also complain about. But in so far as ontological phenomenology makes overt claims about being, those claims seem to me to enter in a world of propositions and proofs, albeit unwillingly.)

The same ambivalence occurs in modernist social criticism, where there is substantial tension between the particulars of historical analysis and the efforts to give those particulars general significance in relation to aspects of modern social life. Here I will concentrate on those aspects of these practices that to the allegorical, as well as the allegorizings of the practices as exploring possibilities of social significance. But there are too many and too diverse critical practices tending to the allegorical for me now to take any one or two as representative. I trust this is not a problem for my essay because I can assume my readers can call to mind appropriate test cases. The more important issue is whether they will entertain my proposal to look beyond those particular examples to the possibility that there are common models of what make satisfying work even among those who disagree sharply about preferred methodologies.

Notice how Miller makes important use of the language of exposure (Miller's "making nihilism appear") soon to become very popular for adamantly anti-philosophical uses. And notice also how the Heideggerean mode of cultural criticism stressing reliance on technology offers close parallels with influential Frankfurt school analyses of commodity fetishism and instrumental reason. In fact even where there is sharp disagreement between the generations about where criticism best locates socially effective agency for texts, it is arguable that this difference is a difference about means and not about ends.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of rereading Miller's and Howe's texts is how intently their philosophical allegorizing takes on an edifying, even preacherly. urgency to save society from its self-inflicted wounds. Miller's story gives the writers power as thinkers to provide at least the glimpse of an alternative world where the tendency to seek subjective mastery is overcome by the capacity to have consciousness dwell in co-presence with things. So it does not seem to me a large leap to argue that cultural criticism shares with Miller and with Howe the sense that the culture is in a parlous state and the role of the critic is to articulate ways of addressing its blindness, self-satisfaction, and insensitivity to what makes desirable change possible. There is in common the language of exposing conditions of crises, the sense that literature should take responsibility for a culture's suffering by directly addressing its causes (although the sixties did not see that perhaps the literature might be part of the cause of the suffering), and above all the presence of an allegorical thinking that divides fields of inquiry into what matters for addressing a cultural plight and all the rest that is mere literature. All of the modernist writing that mattered seemed to have to engage the increasing objectification in which empiricist thinking or capitalist thinking divided subject from object and hence created an imposing threat of nihilism. And this meant stressing those powers of art that could be seen as directly or indirectly offering direct engagements with that cultural condition. The relevant powers became the ability to wield versions of negativity like irony or withdrawal into abstraction, and the ability to create sufficiently complex and internally dense structures to be taken seriously as modes of non-discursive thinking allied with the kinds of philosophy that were opposing the empiricist causes of nihilism.

Here I cannot develop these assertions but have to presume them in order to sketch my positive alternative to allegories philosophical and social. I want to sketch a contrasting view of how modernist writing might reward a renewed aesthetic attention to particular experiences that texts make possible. It seems impossible to deny that Miller and Howe are completely right about at least two things. Modernism staged itself as responding to world-historical crisis, so that criticism would be thin if it did not try to take seriously the terms of that crisis, at least provisionally. And that crisis demanded of writers that they reject, in form and in content, the basic roles society had scripted for them. Significant writing could not be content to delight and to instruct. It had to seek the power to convince audiences that they were in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and it had to find ways to reject descriptive tasks so that it could perform the work of realization, work that would enact how minds might experience the powers of language to articulate fresh ways of engaging the world.

However, those justified ambitions created a serious problem for criticism. How could critics respond to that general sense of crisis and still devote their energies to developing the particular stakes various writers wagered? How could they dramatize the seriousness of the writer without emphasizing how they participated in this necessary project of confronting nihilism and its correlates like commodification? On the other hand, how could they capture the distinctiveness of individual texts if they required for each instance the same story of how each writer developed his or her methodological version of stepping "barefoot into reality." The most ambitious critics would have to engage what for shorthand I will call "ontological projects," (later to become social projects posed by the critic) and emphasize the meta-dimensions that allied texts with one another. There could be little attention to the many intriguing texts in which writers elaborated other projects or simply set their imaginations to work at finding release from such crushing seriousness. Let me for now just ask how many philosophical or cultural critics descending from Miller or from Howe attend to the anti-allegorical Dada poems in Spring and All or the intricacies of Eliot's "La Figlia Che Piange," or Pound's visionary Cantos (or for that matter to Pound's vicious Cantos), or the range from delight to attunement to fatality that Stevens wrests from his fascination with the imagination? There is much more critical energy devoted to the ideal of the poem creating a reality on its own than there is responsiveness to how poems actually compose realities. And criticism still founders when it is faced with specifying how these texts establish terms for a version of close readerly attention to texts that could insist on its differences from philosophical reflection. To articulate an alternative to her justified suspicions about her peers' philosophical ambitions Marjorie Perloff could only come up with the self-defeating notion of "indeterminacy."

If my criticisms are valid in relation to the treatment of those poets who are among the usual suspects dragged out when the topic turns to the struggle against nihilism, imagine how the problems get exacerbated in relation to other terrific poets like Crane, Frost, Moore, H.D., Hughes, Cullen, and especially Stein (who could not abide talk of nihilism). The concern for philosophical generalization that shaped the modernist canon for criticism in the sixties occludes a lively and significant range of feelings, emotions, and reflections that these writers compose in their work. Not only is the exclusion of these particular states a major impoverishment of "reality" (think of what might adorn the feet (pun intended) of Hart Crane or Frank O'Hara stepping into reality), but that exclusion constitutes a major failing in the struggle against nihilism. For nihilism may be far less vulnerable to abstractions (which seem the same old efforts of consciousness to work out of the fly bottle that it also constitutes) than it is to the proliferation of the complex embodied pleasures in existence that articulate art provides. Critiques of nihilism that never mention sympathy and delight or privilege lyric ecstasies like Pound's early Cantos seem peculiarly obtuse to the practical aspects of cultural crisis. (In fact the earnestness of some of these critical endeavors might even seem to provide good reason to take up nihilistic attitudes toward cultural life.)

To change this situation we have to begin with the assumption that while major writers certainly are thinkers, they have to deploy that thinking for processes of embodiment that explore the resources of a given medium. And such explorations have to be governed in large part by the pursuit of particular satisfactions and pleasures that can be only tangentially related to any philosophical conception of truth. The primary crisis for a maker is how do I make this particular investment of my time pay off by charging this particular object with what will compel an audience's attention. Writers do not lose their sense of overarching cultural crisis, but they have to be aware that addressing only such a general concern will not produce sufficient care for differentiating objects from one another. And it will not make for much range in subjective investments. Perhaps the best response to nihilism is not always pursuing a program for making the "nihilism latent in our culture . appear as nihilism" or even for composing a "space in which things, the mind, and words coincide in the closest intimacy" 8). Perhaps one important response is to take manifest pleasure in the kinds of thinking that make objects and rhythms awaken the senses, diction startle the mind, and situations seem handled with wisdom and sympathy. So from my perspective a primary task now for modernist criticism is to call attention to the variety of affective situations enabled by modernist culture.

Some of these will demand intense cultural criticism, but others will show the way to take delight in various aspects of what modernity makes possible. These shifts are already taking place within American culture, at least if the immense success of museum exhibitions of Dada and surreal works is a valid indicator of priorities within the culture which worries about such things. It is high time to work out how theory might go about facilitating the appreciation of that variety.

I am not proposing a formalism or a complete return to close-readings uninformed by philosophy. I am proposing a somewhat different way to imagine how poets make articulate modes of thinking that are important for their culture's struggles against nihilism and against the commodity fetishism which is nihilism in practice because it admits no other to the immediate possessive desires of the individual. Philosophy confronts nihilism by argument or by Wittgensteinian and Heidegerrean modes of thinking that appear inseparable from processes of treating aspects of the world as if they were laden with value. But the arts best realize values when they appeal to our judgments of manner, of how the work makes specific gestures that command interest and project exemplary qualities. Art is thinking, but thinking as a way of making something happen in how an object guides our ways of engaging the world.

These assertions rehearse general arguments emphasizing manner over matter that I made much more extensively in my Particulars of Rapture. Now I want to test their value as an alternative way of honoring the philosophical engagements of modernist writing. I hope to show how important it is to distinguish between the phenomenological ontology of Heidegger and his heirs and a looser, more practical phenomenology that teases out what the stakes are for consciousness as it fosters intricate relationships with intentional objects. In my view Heideggerean thinking is doomed to some version of subordinating particulars to talk about "being" and then talking about being in terms of generalized entities like consciousness" or "language" or "spirit" or, increasingly, just "otherness." Cultural criticism came to power in justified resistance to that level of abstraction and that distance from quotidian practices. And this criticism has proven itself quite strong in talking about existing social relations and even in analyzing the material effects produced by art objects as they enter into relation with readers and with cultural institutions. But this criticism simply does not have the resources to handle one of those quotidian practices-the activity of making art objects that focus on what can be exemplary in concrete manners of action offered for an audience's reflection. The relevant manner will usually display an expertise within a medium capable of establishing engagement with a singular situation-no mean task. But that expertise will also try to make what the medium mediates also focus on how represented agents can act so as to elicit specific, often complex affective states that invite audiences to test how they might participate in the state displayed.

Most cultural criticism is committed to social realism, at least on the level of what it takes as effective reality. It cannot therefore deal with the arts as intentional structures defining possibilities or potentials. It must collapse that potential into highly generalized interpretations of the significance of a work or go to the opposite extreme by focusing on effects on actual readers, or perhaps on the careers of actual authors. At both poles criticism misses not only the distinctive kind of reality art brings to the world as possibility, but also the nature of the site where art can claim to have a distinctive philosophical role. For art's thinking is not bound to the aboutness of empirical or even generalizing thought. Art's thinking begins in hypotheticals-what would thinking and feeling be like if the artist made these assumptions or acted in this manner. Then it quickly leaps to offering a hypothetical about this hypothetical, or an "as if" about an "as if." Having constructed the hypothetical and pushed it toward realization in several dimensions, the art invites the audience's efforts to grapple with provisional processes of identification or the refusal or the modification of identification. In other words art does not offer argumentative paths for thinking so much as it offers affective engagements with a concrete embodiment of what for the artist seem particular states worth investing in. These states are offered as invitations to audiences to use them as exemplars for directing their attention, producing care for what they encounter, or determining what is worthy of their own capacities for make emotional investments.

For my test cases I want to turn to two quite well-known modernist poems-in one case a poem typically read in allegorical terms about nihilism in modern culture and in the other a poem rarely attended to by critics because it does not participate in that allegory, yet is one of the most complex expressions of feeling among modernist lyrics. My first example is the last two-thirds of this first stanza in Eliot's Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt Deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read much of the night and go south in the winter. (53)

This is certainly not a passage about delight or ecstasy, and even its sympathy is painfully analytic. Yet I attend to it because the best way to indicate the powers of an affective reading is to establish what that reading brings out that allegorical and philosophical readings tend to miss. There are few passages in modern poetry more fundamental to abstract literary accounts of modernist nihilism. But there are also few passages where attending to the allegorical matter so drastically impoverishes the affective intensities produced by how the experience is rendered.

Typical allegorizing accounts of Eliot's poem tend to emphasize the opening two sentences from this first stanza. Those sentences enact the basic reversal of Chaucerian hopes for spring renewal; there the allegorical corpse takes up its residence; there abstract memory fuses uncomfortably with desire; there the poem states the wish to rest in a forgetfulness that at least masks the pain of having to exist; and there the repeated participles first establish the power of language to provide some capacity for vitality and focused need not available to the actors in the poem. But these critical accounts rarely ask why Eliot might feel the need for the supplementary sentences that make up the rest of the paragraph. They add nothing to the allegorical situation, so they seem mere gestures toward honoring the role of the concrete image. Yet if read for how the manner of this sequence affords a distinctive matter, we will find ourselves tracking an extraordinarily evocative range of shifts in feeling that ultimately justify and ground how the poem will proceed.

Notice first the sound and sweep of the long expanding alliterative eighth line that provides a turn against winter. It is as if the "us" speaking in the previous sentence is coming to life and preparing for the assertions of first person agency in the following lines. The poem is moving from an oppressive generalized view of the cultural situation to human possibilities that specific human voices seem to afford. One might even say that the four lines comprising the third sentence are a muted bourgeois version of the scene with the hyacinth girl. There is the same strong sense of innocence combined with remembered delight in particular situations, although here there is no ecstasy and no drastic drop off to despair. It seems that these bourgeois voices have not yet felt April as the cruelest month and can be at home in the quotidian. Yet what power they have is incomplete and fleeting, largely because if the audience identifies with this initial speaker, it will be difficult to protect themselves against the need or the aggression of other voices. For example the assertive voice of the Lithuanian not only expresses exile but also creates for the audience a sharp sense of difference from the other more comfortable voice. Then that distancing effect extends even to the woman Marie's voice, partially because of its upper class qualities and partially because this voice does not seem quite to mean what it says. Now a manifest dis-ease comes through the voice. We hear a neediness and even an incipient hysteria that her memories and descriptions cannot keep concealed. So when Marie interacts with a male companion, the scene gets strangely doubled. "Hold on tight" has a much more general scope than the speaker recognizes. And Marie's version of freedom is clearly something like a mask projected to cover over the mention of fear that becomes more pervasive the more she tries to present something like a normal life, at least normal for her class.

These are observations about the dramatic forces at play. Eliot wants us also to feel some of the more general aspects of his rendering of the situation. It seems as if the poem tried to turn to particular subjects in order to mollify the severity of the impersonal and generalizing allegorical voice speaking the first two sentences. But these personal voices cannot even face the spiritual anxiety that provokes the impersonal voice. (Marie could be the speaker of the closing lines or perhaps not-the important point is that what she articulates has a gravitational force on other possible voices.) As Marie's voice (or what it becomes a surrogate for) become increasingly distant and theatrical, Eliot confronts his readers with a gulf between the desire for self-possession and a state of incipient panic that cries out for the kind of impersonal analysis that opens the poem. And as Marie turns to the comfort of a male savior figure, it is difficult not to think of that analysis taking Lacanian form. Marie exhibits an increasingly desperate demand that such an authority figure will turn her uneasy fluid feelings into what will justify strong, explicit affirmative emotions.

At the same time the expansive lines about summer give way to increasingly jagged syntax and monosyllabic diction that becomes an emblem of all of the individual speakers inability to find words they can fully inhabit. The personal and the impersonal begin to live one another's lives and die one another's deaths. The effort at knowledge leads to an effort at sympathy which in turn makes careful readers understand better the need for that first allegorizing voice. Yet their states of awareness deepen a sense of secular subjectivity that will never conform to what impersonality has to offer. By the end of the first stanza we learn to feel the need for what the poem pursues, even as we come to understand better why that pursuit will generate little more than an intensified madness. We feel why subject's need something larger than themselves, and we confront the immense burden of defensive and hysterical projections that make it impossible for them to recognize that they might already be in the company of a third always with them who can provide what they need. We feel what it will take the entire poem to understand.

My second lyric passage is William Carlos Williams' "Dedication for a Plot of Ground," an elegy for his grandmother. I have chosen a second poem about burial because this one sets so different a spiritual agenda. Its commitment to intense particularity adamantly refuses an allegorical dimension and therefore does not easily accord with the generalizing philosophical bent that critics want as exemplars of modernism:

This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on a Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in Santo Domingo, followed
her oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her "baby,"
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them-they being
motherless-fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storm, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived her fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and-

If you can bring nothing to this place
But our carcass, keep out. (105-06)

Here the poetry resides mostly in how the insistent particular predications compose a powerful amalgam of feelings much too subtle for any public discourse. The poem comes as close as the imagination can to combining delight with grief, while beggaring even those labels for what is concretely happening in the language.

Williams makes the artist's agency central from the start by emphatically defining a particular place then quickly shifting to evoke her power to overwhelm this sense of place. Place gives way to the predicating of details that increasingly call out for just the kind of attention the poem gives: we come to see that she is the kind of person who can only be known by the impression made upon one who has felt the cumulative effect of the details that he now conveys to others. This is a life that takes on substance through blunt, abrupt narrative colloquially heaping up the details and refusing any lyric adornment. There are so many significant details to Emily's life that offering to interpret or garnish them would be silly excess, and perhaps a sign of unwillingness to look the facts in the face. So Williams chooses to establish her strength of character in terms of how this variety of direct predicative statements that her memory elicits is contained by one stunning supple sentence, as if only the abstract form of the sentence could synthesize this identity. The feeling elicited by this extended sentence seems capable of preventing the poem from slowing down and having to provide an interpretive hierarchy of details. The single sentence refuses even to present contrasts that would weaken or substitute for the sense of constant expanding modification-a sense, needless to say-which might lead to a very useful appreciation of why society needs and fears strong characters.

I speak as if the energy of the predication suffices to establish a substance for the elegy. But the poem also emphasizes important differences in tone and perspective as Emily gets older and more accustomed to the life of combat that these details require. Once she loses her daughter and seizes the two boys from her oldest son, the poem gravitates toward her own perspective. With the mention of fighting for the sons against the other grandmother and of defending herself against thieves, then especially of resisting the girls who "came smelling about," the poem seems no longer content to record the facts. Its verbs take on qualities that at the least embody her sense of the struggles that dominate her life. As we open ourselves to her perspective, the poem also develops a more abstract aspect of identification. Repetitions of "against" become almost anaphoric-I think because that term captures the elemental force of Emily's life. The poet finds a linguistic emblem allowing his expansiveness to merge with the basic source of the subject's intensities.

Williams's inventiveness is not yet exhausted. At the end of the stanza he quickly assumes a position where identification with Emily requires leaving Emily's subjectivity in order to complete his picture of it. She could not quite know that she even struggles against her own mind, but the poet sees that this is the price of having to identify oneself in the role of constant resistance. Then the second stanza brilliantly shifts from the anaphoric profusion of "Against" to a series of main verbs, one to a line. This returns us to what we can take as Emily's basic drives, but now at a later stage in her life. Her refusal to submit to defeat led her to "blackguard" her oldest son from her second marriage into buying her a plot of land. The sequencing of verbs captures Emily's satisfaction in inhabiting her land after so long having only negation as what she could be sure was hers. These verbs enact her most intimate pleasure, and they allow the poet to share her sense of recognition that she has made a home enabling these verbs. More important yet, this level of intimacy makes her "final loneliness" an ultimate achievement, as if this state was the culminating wisdom born of her sense of struggle. Attaining this level of consciousness prepares her for death and makes it something other than a disaster.

The only one who risks disaster at the end of this elegy is "you," the sudden presence of what we see now is the audience for this elegy. And what a great "you" it is. First we might note that the speaker has so taken on the spirit of Emily that he assumes the worst and sets himself against even the possibility that there will be anyone involved in her story against whom there need not be a struggle. No wonder he stresses the auditor's carcass, the parallel to the dead body that he has been trying to revivify. His awareness of an audience, especially this audience, also makes the poet stress his role as a teacher. Williams probably does not want an allegory about pouring one's heart out to teach canonical texts to carcasses, but that identification is hard for me to resist. After all his task is to show the gulf between the body that now occupies the grave and what the imagination can make of the life the corpse still possesses for him if he can preserve a sense of its particularity. This, one might say, is how one combats nihilism. But to the credit of this poem, unlike Spring and All, this allegory is at best faintly in the background.

What would it take to have the "you" bring more than his carcass? Minimally it would take respect for the life Emily lived. But respect is a bit too public an emotion and not bound sufficiently to the details. Ideally, respect would be tempered in one direction by amusement at how her voice comes through the poet's sense of her struggles and, in the other direction, by a healthy dose of fear that one might have to handle an Emily in one's own life. The poem also holds out the possibility of a more general and more profound identification-not so much with the life she lived as with what she may have learned from that life about preparing for death. "You" might bring an understanding of what is involved in attaining that final loneliness, where one can fully embrace being a carcass and project the sense of relatedness that makes possible.

If this "you" is allegorically inclined, and at the same time suspicious of allegorical claims about nature or about responses to nihilism, he or she might extend this final challenge in the poem so that it applies to the demands a modern poetry can make. "You" might reflect on how this poem manages without allegory to produce an appreciation of how this woman could forge a substantial character out of her suffering, how the poet's effort at unadorned naming gives imaginative access to that character, and how the audience might turn away from the defensive orientation that wants to avoid facing both Emily's intense possession of her place in life and her "final loneliness."




Works Cited

 

Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Eliot, T.S. T.S Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace,

Jovanovich: 1970.

Howe, Irving, "introduction: The Idea of the Modern." In Howe, ed., Literary

Modernism. New York: Fawcett, 1967: 11-40.

Miller, J. Hillis. Poets of Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery. Madison: Wisconsin University Press,

1989.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetics of Indeterminacy.

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed.

by A Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions,

1986.

 



[1] Those readers who persist will find a version the argument made popular by Cary Nelson that the shaping of the modernist canon blinded us to a wide range of significant writing. But unlike Nelson, I propose that the blindness came not from aestheticism but from the particular allegories intensifying a selected use of aesthetic criteria-hence the link with cultural criticism that uses much the same allegorizing for other purposes-think of Jameson's tales of symptomatic cultural practices. Then I can differ from Nelson in wanting to preserve a primarily aesthetic framework that encourages an emphasis on canonical writers (or writers whom one wants to propose for canonical status) rather than opening the field to writing that matters for the political and social filiations it fosters. I am contrasting one prevailing aesthetic language with other possible aesthetic frameworks that promise adjustments in the canon and incentives to return to close reading, albeit in relation primarily to affective rather than conceptual values.

 

[2] I spell out what is involved in this shift to treating manner as matter in my Particulars of Rapture.