About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 16 - on modern fiction

For information on my political novella about Israel plus “eight stories of the eighties,” please take a look at the page describing my new book Acts of Terror and Contrition – A Nuclear Fable. It’s available from Amazon.com (here's the link: Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable) or from the publisher (click on the cover image to the left).

In some of my first notes on the modern period, I tried to show that Romanticism’s idea of the self has deeply influenced the modern. From 1807 on, Hegel's concept of self-consciousness - as a force which can upend the stability of master-servant relations - resonated in much of the literature and thought of the Romantic period (and of course for later writers, too). Jane Austen’s heroines (as carefully controlled and "ironical" as their presentation is) exemplify the power of self-consciousness as a tool, sensibly utilized it was hoped, to modify rigid class behavior and social assumptions. Emma’s “self,” for example, grows in ambition and self-empowerment to the point that she does harm to others, all as part of her experience of learning to control the force of her character. By the 1850s and 60s, however, the range and force of novelistic self-consciousness and the behavior it stirs threaten to break the deepest social and human bonds, and the “self” of the protagonist grows monstrous in Madame Bovary and in Crime and Punishment.

From its origins, the novel form focuses on the growth and survival of the budding self as it encounters “reality,” engages its nurturing possibilities, and struggles with its blighting forces. As the novel fabricates its fictive beings, the form reveals itself as the very font and model of self-creation, and it naturally yields characters who are themselves self-fabricating. Finally, the peculiar grandeur of this world-rendering, self-creating form reveals the special power and ambition of its social origins in the bourgeoisie, with its own enormous capacity for growth.

A burgeoning enormity of self typifies the characters generated by the great modernist experiments in the novel. And modern authors are implicated in the process, for autobiographical material seems invariably to find its way into the modern masterpieces of the form. There is Marcel Proust’s creation of the autobiographical character and narrator Marcel, crucial among In Search of Lost Time’s core characters, whom Proust terms “giants in time” as they bestride his novel’s colossal, society-encompassing structure. A similar sort of gigantism marks Joyce’s ironic transformation of himself into the autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus, whose struggles and intellect dominate A Portrait and large parts of Ulysses (above all, the novel’s aesthetic structure and ambition); this is not even to mention the degree to which Joyce gives autobiographical qualities also to Leopold Bloom. There are, of course, other powerful examples: Woolf’s autobiographical fictions in To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Mann’s self-implicating summa of western civilization in The Magic Mountain (let alone the autobiographical elements in Buddenbrooks), Conrad’s own Marlovian confrontation with European megalomania, Kafka’s K and Joseph K, Lawrence’s self-searching novels, etc.

For Proust and Joyce, the impulse to fabricate an autobiographical self in fiction arises from their larger ambition: to preserve, to encompass, and also to frame and judge a collapsing world - a disintegrating society and culture. These novelists create a novelistic world capable of encompassing a society grown monstrous on its fare of war, its economic expansions and collapse, and its imperial ambition to regulate human life. In the years just before and following World War One, modern society had become a murderous juggernaut, just as Joyce and Proust published their novels. The seemingly desperate audacity of the modern novel’s aims – the gigantism of its scale and characters – reflects the massive challenge of giving form to and finding signs of life in the enormity of modern life. Even a fundamentally decent figure like Joyce’s everyman Leopold Bloom must inhabit and confront the dimensions of Ulysses’ gigantism. Both modern history and modern fiction can resemble a steamroller which threatens to flatten lives into vast thinned-out representations of the human. In our new century, we participate in a similar experience of monstrosity. It is what we have as the condition of any affirmation in postmodernity. Images of self-destructive and unabated cancerous growth fill the byways and airways of all our activities, economic, political, “cultural,” and medical.

In the face of the rampant growth of self and society, the achievement of the proto-modern novels of Flaubert and Dostoyevsky, from the 1850s through the 1870s, is powerfully to engage the dilemma of remaining human – to maintain images of the human even as they undergo a radical redefinition, a simultaneous distension and flattening. The two novelists establish alternative yet equally essential strategies for modern novelists. The clinical realism of Flaubert’s sentences exactly renders characters’ lives; his realism establishes the precise nature and origin of a character’s situation, whether their self-blindnesses, their drowning in a world of things, or their yearning for vision. In Madame Bovary, for example, there is the great cinematic “country fair” scene, in which the rake Rudolf’s hackneyed phrases seducing the unappeasably needy Emma are exactingly paired with the official’s own empty conventional phrases announcing prizes for farm products: “‘Did I know I would accompany you?’ / ‘Seventy francs!’ / ‘A hundred times I tried to leave; yet I followed you and stayed.’ / ‘For manures!’” And the acid climax of this scene of self-aggrandizing public and private manipulations is the image of a final award-recipient: an old peasant woman gnarled and withered by fifty years of hard service and suffering walks forward – “Thus, a half century of servitude confronted these beaming bourgeois.”

At one point, Emma – herself now suffering from the consequences of her enormous appetite to consume things, both material and human – walks in the night, given over to a great aching bout of self-pity, having been rejected by one of her lovers whom she importuned for money. As she walks beneath the stars, Flaubert’s narrator – with a characteristic mix of irony and sympathy – writes as follows of her plea and, by extension, of the novel’s own exacting language in rendering her plea: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” Our language would fill the unfillable emptiness which is the life of the modern self, grown into a sort of enormity of nothingness, as its self-conscious, self-creating desires consume or, rather, exude extraordinary amounts of destructive energy. It is as if the bourgeois self had grown disproportionate and gigantic in its unquenchable imaginative needs and their impact on society. And the reverse is also true: the burgeoning gigantism of an increasingly destabilized modern society unleashes a distorted, alienated grasping and daring “as never before” in the self.

Emma Bovary’s night plea is only one among many examples of her alienated grasping for life, a grasping which Flaubert’s realism inevitably grounds in psychic emptiness. In contrast, Dostoyevsky renders a similar grasping and daring with quite different aims and techniques. In Crime and Punishment, the opening interior monologue emerges from the mind of Raskolnikov, a “student” character compounded of literate privilege and dire poverty. He is thinking of committing a murder, for his desperate and unmoored ego has grown to the point of contemplating an enormity, a violent breaking of the basic human ‘code;’ even his self-lacerating recriminations have the air of expansive self-dramatizations. These initial paragraphs of the novel draw us into the most dangerous ruminations of the psyche (Freud, of course, saw Dostoyevsky as a source and predecessor), and that psychological realism offers modern novelists a model for rendering the most submerged and potentially monstrous levels of the stream of consciousness.

Yet there is a still deeper point to Dostoyevsky’s explorations of his characters’ psyches. As they enter each other’s lives, these characters encounter a zone of contact, of fluid and unpredictable exchanges, which pressures and requires them to bare their feelings. In an extremity of such baring of self, each human being insinuates himself or herself into the life of the other in what is finally, for each self, a zone or process of creative freedom. In an example of such contact early in Crime and Punishment, there is Raskolnikov’s conversation with Marmeladov, who will stop at nothing in excoriating himself for his drunken exploitation of his daughter, Sonya (she later helps to succor the young protagonist). Here is Marmeladov in action, insinuating, violating boundaries, simultaneously blaspheming and crying out for human contact: “Why pity me, you say? Yes! There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, and not pitied! But crucify, O judge, crucify, and having crucified, pity the man!...He will pity us who pitied everyone…And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say, ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’” In this zone of contact, Dostoyevsky locates the unrestrained eruption of his characters’ egos; this is an ultimate model for the sort of psychological gigantism which modern novels render and confront.

Here are some links to the above mentioned books: Crime and Punishment (Paperback), Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics), In Search of Lost Time: Proust 6-pack (Proust Complete), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses.

My next post will (more briefly, I hope) attempt to explore work by a single modern novelist.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Acts of Terror and Contrition: a nuclear fable about Israel - now available.

If you have read the excerpts from Acts of Terror and Contrition and find them (or the following description of my new novel) intriguing, you may buy the book by clicking on the cover image to the side here, on the title to this post, or on the Amazon.com link at the end of this post.

Acts of Terror and Contrition is both a political novella about Israel and a literary thriller telling the unofficial story of Israeli responses to Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks during the 1990 Iraq War – and the possibility that his missiles might carry nuclear warheads “to burn Israel to the ground,” as Tarik Aziz said then. This nuclear fable presents the secret history of the Mossad Operations Chief’s covert threats to force world governments to face what is at stake should Iraq launch a nuclear attack.

Desperate and unyielding in the face of Saddam’s threat, the Chief, Arie Schneider, puts a renegade plan into place, even as he confronts the machinations of the deeply-divided Israeli government ministers as well as his staff members’ rebellion against the extremity of his plan. Shadowing all this is the presence of the first Intifada, an Arab mother, and particularly her Islamist son, who plots his own act of terror. Enmeshed in the nuclear crisis, Arie must yet face his troubled wife, their two children, and above all his father, Rami, a holocaust survivor and retired diplomat. In opposition to the dangerous extremity of Arie’s plan, the old man summonses all his wisdom and his wily, struggling will to confront his son.

Acts is a literary novella, a version of the sacrifice of Isaac, about the unrecorded acts of terror and contrition which arise in 1990 within this circle of characters as their lives move toward a powerful and compelling climax. It is simultaneously a political thriller propelling us through dangerous close-calls and suspenseful political decisions in foreign capitals. It is also a powerful alternative history presenting a secret history of Israel’s part in the Desert Storm War. Above all, the novella explores the dread and opposition human beings feel toward the danger of nuclear radiation and nuclear weapons.

Eight stories of the nineteen-eighties accompany the novella, and these works record more personal “acts of terror and contrition” during the decade of Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union. The stories cast a stark light – both ironic and sympathetic – upon the resinous hearts of these characters feeding what flames upon the troubled nights of the eighties. Both the novella and the stories in Acts of Terror and Contrition testify to the fraying connections between the personal and political, national identity and common humanity. And just as politics and identity are entwined here, so too are the forms the stories take: political fiction meshes with a thriller; raw slices of life yield the wholeness of a family chronicle; Americans come face to face with a range of strangers and specters; headlines haunt works of literary fiction.

In the first story after the novella, the wry secular Jewish owner of a New York toy company is visited one night in 1980 (Einstein's centennial year) by the spirit of the genius, and together they mourn the part the Jewish physicist played in developing the nuclear bomb. In another story set later in the eighties, a young professor creates a haunted, incendiary poem in response to the film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” as he faces an inner breakdown before the needs of wife, mentor, department chair, and a famed visiting Russian poet. In the third and fourth stories, two elderly characters – one an Armenian-American, the other the Greek widow of an eminent German-Jewish expatriate pianist – seek the energy and clarity to go on in the face of maddening infirmities and the incomprehension of others. In the fifth story, a former political activist takes his family on a European vacation in 1984, and on an Italian train he faces his youthful double, a fiery student anarchist. The final three stories chronicle the life of a multi-ethnic American painter born in the forties, from his traumatic childhood, through his youthful trespasses, to his difficulty in finding balance – of communicating – in marriage and beyond; the third story in the trilogy portrays a last chance he has to break the cycle of failed communication and to right himself as a father to his teen-aged son, who himself struggles to maintain his humanity in the America of 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

You may get a copy of the book from Amazon.com via the following link:

My next post will be an attempt to explore some works of certain precursors of the modern novel.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Notes on the Modern Period - 15 - War and the modern imagination

Before I turn to modern fiction and music, I want to write something more about the impact of World War One on modern literature, and particularly poetry. Of course, Eliot’s work – not least “The Wasteland” – and Yeats’ works resonate with the effect of the war and the effort to understand its impact: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; / …The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The writers who fought or served at the front in the Great War – “the War Poets” – focus much of their work on it. Their writing testifies to their contact with the immense wave of the violence which swept across their lives, for some to end them. These writers include Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, all of whom died in the war, and those who survived: Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, and David Jones (among others - for example, Hemingway and Cummings). Conventions of ancient classical lyrics are adopted by some of them – paeans to the heroic dead, for example in Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (written in the first months of the war), or acknowledgements of the equality of suffering in both opposing armies, for example in Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting” (written later in the war), or bitterly realistic evocations of slaughter, for example in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Attack.” The adoption of partly Homeric gestures gives form to the soldier-poets’ sensation that they were experiencing something ancient akin to the origins of human combat, a sort of primal violence and contact with death. [As we'll see in a later post, some modern novels create characters which present an image of and contact with that primal violence.]

Wilfred Owen’s poems present the reader with just that sensation, and frequently they do so by explicitly evoking the ancient world. The Old Testament’s story of the sacrifice of Isaac becomes the premise of “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” at the end of which “Abram…slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” implores the reader to reject the ancient Roman tag: “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. The rest of the poem renders with blunt, modernist immediacy the viewpoint of the soldier in the trenches: the desperate provisional community (“Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys!”), the dream-like disorientation (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. // In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”), and the raw confrontation of the reader to make him or her “see” and hear (“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”), leading to the critical indictment of the Latin cliché. (There is Jon Silkin’s fine anthology of these poets: THE PENGUIN BOOK OF FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY ( Penguin Modern Classics ).

That Latin cliché also appears in Ezra Pound’s equally bitter fourth poem in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” but the stamp of rhymed iambic pentameter has practically vanished here, for Pound’s pithy, flexible line has no need for the sort of control that a front-line soldier might rely on to be able to speak at all. That desperately maintained balance has been replaced by Pound’s outpouring of incantatory repetition and fragmenting rage: “Dies some, pro patria, / non “dulce” non “et décor” . . . / walked eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving / came home, home to a lie / home to many deceits, / home to old lies and new infamy; / usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places.” Pound’s poetry develops the modern qualities evident already in Owen’s further in the direction of experiment, but he accompanies his fine ear for allusion and his insightful eye with a ranting invective, a release from reason, which makes Pound an ambassador from the zone of modern, unleashed chaos.

Two works portray the experience and achievement of the War Poets with particular brilliance. One is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, with its acuity about their poetic achievements and its depth of understanding about their war experience and the process of finding language in the face of those experiences. The other book is a powerful novel by Pat Barker, Regeneration, the first novel of a trilogy. Barker imagines the struggle of a gifted and ethically questioning psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers (himself a historical figure), who was assigned to treat Sassoon, Owen, and others in order to return them to the front lines (there is by the way an adequate and well-acted film version of the novel, Behind the Lines).

I’ll be turning soon to modern fiction, though Acts of Terror and Contrition, my novella/nuclear fable about Israel, is about to be released by Amazon.com’s publishing arm, so my next post will attempt to present that novel to you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fourth excerpt from "Acts of Terror and Contrition - A Nuclear Fable"

An expanded and revised version of this novel imagines a possible nuclear war with Iran and has been published, now titled "A Burnt Offering - a fable" and is available through the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Offering-linked-Nuclear-Fables/dp/B08B325H7K/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=A+Burnt+Offering+Melnick&qid=1594848014&sr=8-2

Please see the FIFTH excerpt of this short novel, recently added in January 2013. Here is the fourth excerpt from my novella about Israel and unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the 1990 Iraq War with the threat to Israel of Iraqi missiles and the danger that they might carry nuclear payloads. [See February posts for the previous three excerpts.] One strong motivation to write this novella was my desire to reinforce a sense of the great danger of nuclear radiation and nuclear weapons - a danger powerfully explained by Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition (Stanford Nuclear Age Series). 

The entire short novel has been published by and is available through Amazon.com - as well as other on-line bookstores (the book also contains eight stories of the nineteen-eighties following the text of "Acts of Terror and Contrition" about the 1990 war).

Thursday, September 27, 1990

Arie left his office overlooking Jerusalem, took the elevator four floors down to the exit, and walked past the guards into the parking lot. It was after midnight, and the city lights were extinguished, giving way to a star-lit black. At midnight, he had called his father to meet. Rami was known for late hours, and the habit had grown with age. He stayed up each night until two and three.

As Arie left his office, he had called Simon’s apartment. On the eighth ring, Simon answered. His breathing was labored and barely controlled.



An image crossed the Intelligence Chief’s mind, of a man and a woman locked together. For an instant, he imagined their nakedness, the smell of their lovemaking, the liquid surging in her, his semen, their sweat.

“Simon, there are developments at headquarters. I need you here.”

There was mumbling in the background, and then the aide replied.

“I’ll leave immediately.”

“There will be instructions for you.”

As Arie hung up, he was certain that Rachel was there: his loyal aide coupling with this brilliant and intense policy analyst.

Arie’s gray sports car drove now toward the city to a street bordering Nachlat Shiva. Rami lived alone on the edge of the district, in a street of two story residences with walls of stone, wrought iron balconies, and vine-covered patios. Arie drove up to the walkway, and his father was standing alone at the corner. None of the orthodox was there to observe or harass them late at night. The Intelligence Chief got out of the car.

“Don’t bother,” Rami said as his son walked to the passenger door. The father swung the gray door open as if it were a bank vault or a cache of weapons. Arie stood next to him on the sidewalk, and as his father settled himself in the bucket seat the son smiled with deference at the old man and shut the car door with a click.

“Take me for a drive, Arie, around the walls of the City. There is a place I like near Zion Gate.” The son had wanted to talk in his father’s apartment, yet he kept mute. “This café is quiet and open late; it’s run by Armenians.” They drove out onto the thoroughfare heading down Shivtei Israel, past the entrance to medieval, orthodox Mea She’Arim boarded up and deserted. Father and son did not talk as the Old City wall crowded to the left. The silence between them was broken only by snatches of a song, which Rami whispered, a march in Yiddish. They drove south past Jaffa Gate toward the Mount of Zion with the tomb of David on it and the prison of Jesus nearby; inside the car, the old diplomat long removed from Europe sang softly in Yiddish:

“Kumen vet nokh undzer oyzgebenkte sho

Svet a poyk ton undzer trot: Mir zaynen do.”

The storefronts, the City wall, the clay-domed roofs of houses were blackened in the moonless night, and the City seemed barricaded. Arie parked his car near Zion Gate, and they emerged into the night. The southern wall loomed by them as they strolled toward the gate and the Old City’s Armenian quarter. The passing groups of armed Israeli soldiers—all of them assigned to police signs of Palestinian uprising—halted them only the first time to ask for identification. There were few people out.

“Jerusalem is good at claming up, father; for thousands of years, we’ve been building barricades. We’re good at shutting ourselves in.”

“Mir zaynen do,” Rami softly repeated the song’s cadence. “All week that has been running through my head. You know the Partizaner song? ‘Beneath our footsteps the earth will resound: We are here!”

They walked together down a darkened street, past tiers of homes, and Arie held his father’s arm firmly, as they came upon the café, still open among the thick walls of the Armenian district. The quarter’s closed windows and walls were lit only by the gleams of light filtering through slits in a few shutters and doors. From the café, several yards in front of them there came the noise of laughter and talk and men singing out orders for lahmajoun and beer. Here in Ararat Street there was a pungence to the narrow, walled walkway. The clay, the wood, and the latticework of iron bars absorbed the spice and scent of its inhabitants.

Rami opened the green door of the café, and father and son walked into a kitchen where several Armenian men sat impassive now on wooden chairs. A few yards away were steps down into a shallow hole in the cement floor, and at the end of this recessed area, a massive open oven was flaming. The chef stuck long poles into the arched and fiery opening. Inside the walls of the furnace cooked eggplant, chicken, and dozens of small lamb pizzas—the lahmajoun lay flat on long wooden pallets the chef pushed and then pulled from the fire.

Arie and Rami made their way through the kitchen to the side room with tables and late-night diners; as they walked, Rami resumed their conversation.

“We are here inside these walls. Like these Armenians. And our voices, our souls resound. That is Israel: thick walls and singing souls.” Rami was smiling. His eyes looked briefly askance at his son.

“Mr. Schneider,” the bald Armenian—who was fluent in Hebrew and willing to admit it—asked the white haired Jew, “a sweet perhaps?”

“No, Abrahim, the cognac is perfect. From Armenia?”

“Only for my best customers, Mr. Schneider.”

“Please, call me Rami. You know we have the same name. Call me Rami.” The warmth emanated from his father which was the mark of the man, compelling an acknowledgment even from those who otherwise would dismiss him.

They sat isolated in the back of the dining room. In the front were men playing chess and tavloo and cards, and they ate from small plates of the food from the kitchen. Two lone foreign tourists—a man and a woman—sat by the entrance, and they had a late night snack, cured and peppery basterma, rice filled grape leaves, and glasses of red wine. In back, Rami raised his glass to his son, about to sip the smoky liquid: “Mir zaynen do.” Arie could not smile, and Rami looked full at his son.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you,” Arie’s voice was cold with rage, “there is increasing evidence that the Iraqis have put nuclear payloads on their missiles. And the Americans are withholding intelligence of the threat from us. This afternoon, the CIA even cut our communications link for over an hour.”

“Why would they do this?” Rami asked, having seen a lifetime of hope and nightmare realized beyond imagining.

“Because they want war, father. Everyone is hungry for war—the Iraqis, the Americans, let alone the Europeans, the Russians, the Iranians. I don’t even mention the Palestinians. And they will all risk a nuclear exchange because they want war so badly. It is chaos. The American troops are headed for Saudi Arabia, and they carry anti-radiation gear. I’m convinced they will permit a so-called limited nuclear war in the region, if it seems ‘necessary.’ This means that Tel Aviv as well as Damascus, Riad, Baghdad—all will be incinerated.”

“It may be,” Rami’s words were tentative; they trembled like an old man’s.

“Yes, it may be,” Arie said in a furious voice. “It may finally be world war. Now, of all times,” he said bitterly, “to celebrate the end of the Cold War, there will be a nuclear war. I must act, father. I can prevent it. I have the intelligence, I have the power. There are steps I can take, and I am taking them.”

Rami lifted his glass to his lips and swallowed the remaining half of his brandy in one gulp, tilting his head back like a Russian. “Let’s take a walk,” he said to his son, but Arie did not move. He sat sipping brandy by his father in the smoky, spice-scented room. With distant fury he said: “Who would bring children into such a world?” Arie looked up, and he saw his father’s face staring blankly across the table.

“Be careful,” Rami said as they walked into David Street next to the Armenian Quarter and near the café they had left. The son reached to hold his father’s arm, yet it seemed as if Rami were leading him.

“You know what your mother used to say about you? Almost your exact words: ‘How could we bring a child into this world?’”

“She suffered. A great deal.” In the camp, she had been strapped on the conveyor belt of death. Arie’s sorrow was beyond explanation for him.

“There is a lot we don’t speak of,” Rami said. They were walking past the noisy doorways of cafés and a few occasional pedestrians, some arrayed in Arab gown and headdress, some in shirtsleeves. Then, father and son turned left onto a street of churches, walking toward the Holy Sepulcher, and Rami continued: “Your mother always suffered twice. First she would imagine the possibilities for suffering. Not that there was anything false; she did not fake feelings which were not her own. No, she suffered because she imagined her suffering before the fact. Afterwards, she suffered in reality.”

“She was self-destructive.”

“I have no contempt for suffering, whatever the form. After the camps, Magda had a harmed soul; I felt compassion for her.” They were walking toward the twin-domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, luminous in the night. “I believe you suffer twice, like your mother. I know it hurts.” He paused as his son maintained his hold on him. “No one can live as they should when they bear a double measure of such pain. We become enraged, and this can only obscure our vision. It can disfigure our humanity.” They passed the Hill of Golgotha buried within the stone shrine and turned up the Via Dolorosa, retracing backwards the Stations of the Cross. “But you’re a strong man; I’ve seen it time and again, how much control you have. Now you must be especially alert and strong.”

“I do the best I can,” Arie said, but his voice was bitter. “Is it enough? I couldn’t stop the Palestinian rocket from killing mother.”

“What could you do?” Rami cried out. Then he said softly: “You remember when she rose in her bed and stared, as if she saw a cataclysm out over the Mediterranean, and then she fell back. Is it awful to say, Arie, my heart broke then not for her death but in gratitude because I knew she would no longer suffer so?”

They walked to the corner of Al Wad road. The peasant-looking Special Operations Chief and his white-haired father silently headed for the Temple Mount, and at the Al Wad intersection they walked by a handful of young Arabs loitering at the door of a café. The black-haired men gestured at the two anonymous Jews and spoke in bursts of Arabic.

“No, what’s awful,” Arie spoke to his father, seeming to ignore the men they passed, “is that these people with their Intifada have their hands on our throats, these primitive Bedouins. What an irony they can still shed our blood!”

The five Arabs were following Arie and Rami down the dark street. One of the strangers suddenly seemed to recognize the old, famous diplomat. The Arab was thin, his skin sallow. “You, Schneider, stop,” he said in Arabic, “I’m going to tell you something.” Rami slowed and looked back at the short man who talked as he approached. The Arab’s thin hands flew in Rami’s face.

“You’ve taken my farm away with your settlements! Your expropriation! It is my land! My farm!”

“You must hire a lawyer, my friend,” Rami said in Arabic, improvising, exploring the alien role.

“We did,” the Arab’s glance was full of pride and exhaustion; he had the look of death in his sallow face. “Your law is a farce. It’s no use to us.”

“We must not stop trying to make the law serve justice!” Rami told the stranger. “You’re a courageous man. You must keep trying.”

“I’m just another Palestinian. The law is not for me. Do you know what humiliation I’ve suffered from your laws, what danger there is from every side for me to appeal to your courts? From your soldiers and settlers, and from my own people: the Hamas and the Israeli Army are both at my throat!” The man’s tense high voice shouted now into Rami’s face. “The intifada, the revolt, even Sabra and Chatila were nothing compared to this, this slow death, this, this starvation, from no freedom. No justice! Why do you think we rise up now, even our children, with stones? Because you are killing our souls. And your soldiers are killing even the children who throw stones!”

Three of the other men surrounded Rami and the desperate man. The four Arabs menaced him with shaken fists, on the verge of assaulting him and Arie. A short heavy man, who had stayed back, hissed at the others: “Don’t talk to those filthy dogs. Gamel, it will do no good.”

Arie’s large frame was tense with rage as he watched his father, thin and tall, impassioned and revolving in the circle of Arabs. Rami repeated to them all: “I understand your struggle.”

“Son of a bitch,” one of the younger men snapped back, almost spitting his words at Rami. “You understand nothing!”

“Don’t harass us,” Rami bargained, his thin body electrified; “you don’t want this trouble.”

Suddenly Arie bellowed out to military police who appeared some distance down the road, and as he shouted, he saw the faces of the young Arabs and his father’s surprise.

The Intelligence bureaucrat instantly reached out for the man nearest him, the desperate landless Arab. With both his hands Arie lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. Three other Arabs began to swing at him, and Arie beat them down with fists. The soldiers sprinted up to them. The man who had stood back from his fellows ran away into the labyrinth of nearby street. Arie snapped orders, and four bruised and stunned Arabs were held now at gunpoint. Rami was relieved yet appalled as he stared at his furious son.

Father and son walked over the worn stairways of Temple Mount. Guards on alert, policing signs of uprising, accompanied the two Israeli officials, eminent and eccentric, as they passed during the first hours of the morning. Jerusalem was an ocean of darkness at their feet with islands of light scattered in the night. The twin globes of the Holy Sepulcher stood in the middle of the Old City, and on the Mount itself the Dome of the Rock was bathed in gold, self-reflexive in the floodlights. Immediately below Arie and Rami was the western Wailing Wall.

“What people do in extremity I can understand, no matter how terrible,” Rami said, breaking the silence.

“You understand,” Arie said softly. They seemed to discuss themselves now, not Palestinians, not the possibility of war. “Do you forgive?”

“I remember what people did in the camps, what I did; we did things we wanted to forget. Forgiving is not the issue. When we left Auschwitz, we were put on trains, and many of us climbed to the top of the hurtling cars; we let the wind pummel our skin, to blast away the memories of what we had done.”

Arie held his father’s arm to support him, and he felt the soft, frail flesh. He spoke into the night: “Do you understand what happened just now on the street? I understand, but I hate it. I hate what must be done. And I think, why must we always be an example? Must we tolerate these dogs snapping at us?”

“Yes, our neighbors are violent,” Rami cut in, “and not only they.” The father’s voice was withdrawn, dispassionate. “Those young Palestinians are not animals. Impotence only makes them seem so.” For a moment, Arie glimpsed obscure, half-human figures frothing with fury, figures from a dream. “Even the men with their fingers on the button of the nuclear holocaust are human beings, sick and confused though they may be. Look around us, Arie. The Temple Wall, the Holy Sepulcher, the Mosque, what do they tell you?”

The two men stood in silence, gazing at the golden Dome where Mohammed had risen to heaven; it was the site where Isaac had been bound on the rock altar, a sword poised above his neck at the Lord’s behest.

“We’re all tied to the same myths,” Rami said, “all of us hungry for the same transcendence.”

They took a few steps further toward the overhanging Wailing Wall, and suddenly Arie let go of his father’s arm. The old man’s face and hair gleamed a pale gold in the reflection from the Dome several hundred yards away. Rami seemed on the point of leaping into the shadows below.

“As you said, we Jews are good at building walls. They are what separate us from the animal.” Rami’s Hebrew re-echoed with the inflection of an eastern European intellectual, and his voice shot out into the emptiness before him. “We’re all tied together by a vision of the good. We must continually seek it, Arie; it must rule us.” Rami was suspended above the black ocean of Jerusalem.

* * *

He rushed into the night, circling through the Old City and finally reaching Damascus Gate. Never looking up yet always wary, he made his way toward his apartment. When Sayeed saw soldiers patrolling East Jerusalem, he eased into alleys, slipping into the dark. In this neighborhood under tight surveillance, every action was under suspicion, every movement became political. Even the desire to be unseen collided with the law of the Occupation. Such conditions radicalized every Palestinian, even before they recognized themselves as radical, for every fact of their existence was under concentrated scrutiny. In this lit and malevolent zone of scrutiny and censure, millions of them lived as if in a vast prison camp.

Such were the phrases pulsing in his head as he neared his flat and hid in a nearby doorway to observe whether it was being watched. The sentences were a distillation of his thinking and reading about the tyranny of the West—Qutb, Foucault, Schmidt, so many others, he had not thought there were so many when he first embarked on his studies. And the sentences with their distillations and syntheses were part of what he spoke to his followers, and just now these closest followers—Ishmael, Hassan, Muhammed, and Gamel—had been in jeopardy when the aged dog of a diplomat and his henchman called out for the police on Temple Mount. Sayeed was unsure what had happened to his comrades. When he leapt for the cover of darkness, he had heard scuffling, and he wondered whether Gamel was safe—his newest recruit had spent all his family’s money trying to regain their land; now they had nothing.

Climbing darkened stairs to the second floor landing, he was breathless. Oddly trembling, he unlocked his apartment and made his way to sit down in his study. He knew that his distress was due to flight and terror, and that it was compounded by his isolation; he knew too that it was a necessary isolation. He rose to play some music on his stereo, and the rhythmic plaintive sound of classical Arabic instruments enveloped him—the dhol, the kanon, the tar, the kamani, the shurangiz, the damman, the udu, the daf, the tombak. His mother, Jena, had first introduced him to this music as well as to European classical music. She was such a generous and refined spirit, yet she was forced to take on the pose and manner of a servant to dogs. As he thought of her humiliation, the undercurrent of his rage and bitterness surfaced. What equanimity the music gave him shattered, and he gripped the arms of his study chair.

He would fill his mind with certain verses from the Quran. Yes, their beauty would offer at least a shard of assurance to him that justice was possible, not here, not now, but possible. He spoke some verses to himself: “God truly loves not the men of pride. For when it is said to them, ‘What is it that your Lord hath sent down?’ they say, ‘Fables of the ancients.’ On the day of resurrection these men will bear their own entire burden, and the burden of those whom they, in their ignorance, misled. Shall it not be a grievous burden for them? They who came before them also did plot of old. But God attacked their building at its foundation—the roof fell on them from above; and whence they looked not for it, punishment overtook them.”

It was not for nothing that he trusted no one completely, that he kept his plans to himself; anyone else involved never knew more than a part. Isolation and secrecy were essential, for any of his comrades could be picked up, interrogated, and tortured into confession at any time. The constant danger of arrest for Palestinians was one of the injustices that had spurred the new movement of protest, the Intifada that had broken out this summer. Clerics had spoken from their pulpits, calling for protest marches, boycotts, passive resistance—all with a new vehemence. Sayeed numbered a few of these clerics among his friends, despite their naïve belief that protest could be effective under these war-like conditions of oppression. He had a wide range of friends too in the PLO; even Abu Nizan’s associates knew him as did Intifada activists like Faisel Husseini, but they all remained unaware or at least unsure about his plans and actions.

In these last months, he had told no one the details. He planned a strike against Israeli rule so devastating that it would force an end to its dictatorship over Palestine. The operational conditions existed to bomb the Mossad tower complex. He had watched from surrounding blocks and detected certain lapses in security procedures on the Sabbath and on Holy Days. It was possible on such a day for a small truck driven by a martyr and loaded with explosives to speed the truck through the security gate into the parking lot and detonate at the base of the main building. Sayeed had decided that the coming Saturday must be the day, the conjunction of their Sabbath and their Day of Atonement. And he had come to realize that the martyr must be himself.

* * *

There was a knock at the door. Sasha sat up in bed, his thin body taut and knotted. The Moscow sky was a starry black outside his apartment window. His clock read long after midnight. The knocking rattled his door again. He reached for a small gun in his bedside drawer, and put it in the pocket of the bathrobe he threw on over his pajamas.

“Who is it?” he spat out at the door, and a voice mumbled that it was Block. Sasha unlocked the apartment door, and the short, fat man burst in.

“I’m sorry to barge in. It’s indecent, terribly dangerous, I know. You were asleep? Don’t be angry. It was impossible to wait. I am an impossible person, and I’ve put you too in jeopardy. I shouldn’t have come.”

“Calm yourself, Block,” Sasha said, and led the man to a table in the center of the room. There was a bottle of vodka half full, and Sasha went to the kitchen stall on one side of the narrow room to get a glass. The tiny apartment was in the sixth story of a high-rise apartment, one in a complex of buildings indistinguishable from similar tenements which rose up in Chicago, in Hong Kong, in Rio de Janeiro. Block fumbled at a pack of cigarettes, lit one and inhaled deeply. Beads of sweat swelled on his forehead and over his balding head. He swallowed the liquid Sasha poured him and then poured himself another glass of the vodka; he began to speak in a voice purged of its urbanity, its irony now twisted.

“Our talk this evening, I must say, it terribly upset me. I went home to Anna and dinner, and I could not talk with her as we ate. I could not offer the minimal decencies. And now I’ve awakened you. Impossible. Please forgive me. I am not this way—the decencies I trample on mean something to me.

“After dinner, I went out walking in our district; I must have seemed a madman, wandering in and out of Gorky Boulevard, mumbling to myself as I walked, burning my brain to find the key. Now I have found it, and I think I will be sick, Sasha.

“Wandering about, you know, I was not stopped. Several times in the park, I passed patrolmen. They stared straight in my face and turned aside as if they had seen a dog pissing. There are mad risks I’ve taken, Sasha. Finally, I decided: I had to find out more, and I headed for the Ministry. I have made other appearances there at night to pick up papers or to check on a development. They are used to my eccentricities, and anyway the chief of the night section is an acquaintance. I knew Nickolas at the university. He was always so efficient, so committed to study, yet my work surpassed his, for all my distractedness, my not belonging. Well, he is the one now who has advanced in the Ministry. He’s made up for the past, surpassing me, and he enjoys seeing me, reminding me of it. One of your perfectly ordinary, sadistic bureaucrats, no?”

Block looked up at Sasha, who stared contemptuously at him.

“Don’t you see? I knew Nickolas would talk; he can’t resist showing me that now he knows more than I and is close to the center of power. He’s a machine of a man, but he has these bursts of vanity. He began by talking about the Iraqi threats and invasion. ‘It’s the last straw,’ he said with his usual eloquence. The fool fixed me with an arch stare, and with glee he whispered the secret, the key to Kutzov’s isolation, plotting up there in the top floor of Defense: ‘Marshall Kutzov has developed contingency plans, Block. Top secret. Retargeting missile and bombing programs. The Americans are doing the same, and more! Some of their troops carry tactical nuclear weapons. For the battle to come. You know we’re on alert, Block; condition two. Iraq and your Israel—the whole region is on the verge of being bombed back to the dark ages!’”

Block’s fat face was twisted. He reached for the bottle of vodka, and took a gulp from the glass he poured. Sasha’s glare had widened and now encompassed his room and the city beyond. He broke the silence between them: “For the battle to come.”

Then Block’s murmur burst again from his lips: “Anna, my Anna yearned to immigrate. For years, she has pleaded. But you know I never even tried. I have been an impossible husband; I am at home in these long nights, the cold, a Muscovite at home in suffering. What was I to do? I could not please her. And now Israel will become a radioactive wasteland. Maybe Moscow. Maybe the whole world. Do you see, Sasha? There will be war. And the Israelis know it is coming—Nickolas said it, the sadist; he teased me, knowing I am a Jew. He said there has been a leak, some incident in Western Europe, and Kutzov’s informant reports the Israelis know something is up, know the apocalypse is knocking at the door. ‘Marshall Kutzov is alarmed,’ Nickolas gloated in my face; ‘he has prevailed on the President to declare an alert.’ How, Sasha, how could a madman like Kutzov work his way up the bureaucracy, how could such a pig gain the President’s confidence? I tell you,” Block rose up, his drunken bulk looming above the table, “I tell you, Sasha, the world is ruled by madmen.”

* * *

Outside the expanse of Arie’s windows, the first light of Thursday touched the city with points of fiery gold and drew out Jerusalem’s glaze of pink. Arie was leaving for the early morning Cabinet meeting, scheduled in half an hour. He had roused himself from the couch in his fourth floor office an hour before. It was his job to keep this nightlong vigil; Elena would have to accept it.

When he had returned from the Old City, Simon had been at the office, and hours before they had received Sasha’s message. Stunning realignments had occurred. Both the Russians and the Americans were preparing for the possibility of nuclear war in the region. The Intelligence Director was on a trip to NATO in Brussels, and in his call to brief Arie before his meeting with the Prime Minister, he said that it had become clear that American forces were slated to be shipped to the region and that some would be equipped with secret caches of battlefield nuclear weapons. American troops were on alert across the globe, Iraq threatened nuclear war against Israel, and thousands of troops were massed in each nation across the region. All the while, Washington and the CIA were stonewalling Israel: they denied a heightened alert existed, and they refused to admit that any danger existed of missiles equipped with nuclear payloads. Washington was continually bullying: Israel must bow to the regional American command structure; above all, Israel must not strike in any way against Iraq, or it risked grave consequences. In return, the U.S. would send Patriot missiles to them, as a defense against the possibility that Iraq would launch its Scuds against the Israelis. It was clear to Arie that the Patriots were merely a gesture, for they would provide an unreliable and ineffective missile shield. And then what payload would those Scuds bear?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Notes on the Modern Period - 14 - Abstraction and Immediacy in Modern Art

A pattern established itself early in the modern period, joining an appeal to the moment with the pursuit of increasingly abstract form. This apparent paradox was evident even in Pater’s idealism about art’s power to redeem the moment as well as his ambiguity in evoking the simultaneously “hard” form yet constant mutability of the moment “burn[ing] with a hard, gem-like flame.” Particularly modern painters have been fascinated by experiments with abstraction. [All of thepainters or paintings referred to in this post can be viewed on Mark Harmon's site www.artchive.com.]

Among the Post-Impressionists, Cezanne is the most influential example of this melding of immediacy with abstraction, of purely painterly pleasure with an abstract geometry of ovals, squares, and rectangles. There are the beautiful still-lifes of fruit, lush and ripe in the moment, which are simultaneously a collection of clearly delineated circles, or the powerful portraits of Madame Cezanne, presented with intense immediacy and yet emphasizing the geometry of the face as an oval; and there are the wonderful portraits of Mt. St. Victoire or the Bay at Marseilles where Cezanne takes great pleasure in the actual painting of the looming images, as if he has discovered the secret of his imagination: not the rendering of a particular light or place (though Provence was a necessary inspiration for his work), but the delight in form, the play with geometric patterning and the gradations of the paint itself.

There is an evocative aesthetic manifesto written as the introduction to the catalogue for the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London organized by Roger Fry in late 1910 (in response to which Virginia Woolf wrote that “on or about December 1910, human nature changed”). The introduction was written by the literary journalist Desmond MacCarthy, and it rehearses many of the key motifs of modernism and its paradoxical combination of immediacy and abstraction. MacCarthy writes about Cezanne, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, and he speaks of their ability to express the “emotional significance which lies in things;” this capacity has a long Romantic pedigree (Wordsworth thought he drew on it when he wrote that “we see into the life of things”), as does MacCarthy’s understanding of how art struggles to confront conventional habitual thinking (his complement to the Impressionists is that “they have conquered [attention] for future originality,” though his criticism is that they focused on “recording hitherto unrecognized aspects of objects” rather than on rendering the essences and emotional resonances. It was Post-Impressionism which upheld the primacy of the psychic stream of “emotions and associations,” and the impact of this new art was to “shock and disconcert,” to achieve the shock of revealing inner truth and of destabilizing “naturalist” conventions – finally, its negations of expectation provoke a lapsing of the habitual expectations, a sort of death of the blinkered conventional self. [See the essay in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents.]

About Post-Impressionist abstraction, MacCarthy emphasizes the tendency in it toward “simplification of planes” and “the extreme simplification” of surfaces, of line and design, all as an effort to promote “the fundamental laws of abstract form.” Our question is, of course, what is the effect of this radical stripping down to essential structure? It is to create the art of Matisse’s “Fauve:” a “barbaric” and “primitive” art. This is not a matter of nakedness, of a success via scandal, of shocking the bourgeoisie.

Consider, for example, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Here he uses simplified lines and angular shapes and creates faces as African masks. The “primitive” emotional immediacy and power of the painting arises from combining stark nakedness with those abstract forms and artifices. Picasso’s many later Cubist works develop and expand the logic and “expressivity” of combining raw intensity and abstract geometric form. MacCarthy alerts us to the purpose of this connection between abstraction and primitive immediacy: “Primitive art, like the art of children,” connect us to “the original expressiveness” of life; it aims “to recover the lost expressiveness and life” in art. We can hear the echo of Freud and Jung in the assumption that reconnecting creativity to the primal and mythic truths can restore meaning and feeling to modern life.

Consider, too, Matisse’s “The Dance.” The flowing figures of the dancers are radically outlined and simplified, they are isolated on a flat ground, and there is the simple and bold use of color. As Matisse traces the dancers’ gestures, the beauty and immediacy of his rhythmic and seemingly improvisatory line achieve a stripping down to essential form, which captures the core emotion and human beauty of the dance, fluid and ‘in process,’ a living humanity emphasized all the more by the imperfect grace of the single break in the circle of dancers’ hands.

I want to end this post by suggesting one element of the relationship between modernist “Post-Impressionist” art and postmodernism. Matisse’s “The Music Lesson” fills the flattened surfaces of wall and floor and piano with beautifully fluid lines evoking foliage, decorative designs at intervals on the music stand and latice work, simplified human faces and expressions, all harmoniously composed and conveying the gracious energy and feeling of the musical moment.

The second image is a postmodern painting, which appropriates the Matisse not out of mockery but in order to comment both on it and on its other subject, my ‘postmodern’ novel “Hungry Generations,” for which my wife Jeanette Arax Melnick painted this (below) as the book cover. At least one significant pleasure of postmodern art results from a process of pastiche which adds extra layers of effect to classic and modern texts and images; these added levels can have the impact sometimes of homage, sometimes of travesty, and sometimes of satire, but in each case the usual effect is to add meaning as commentary. Such is the difference between postmodern borrowings and those of Shakespeare (the most inspired thief among artists) or even of Picasso’s appropriations of Valesquez images. [The difference is illustrated by my “Hungry Generations.” Its hero is a young postmodern composer who integrates travestying echoes of music by his favorite composers into his works in an effort to make some inner sense of the fracturing chaos he experiences in contemporary Los Angeles, where he meets the troubled family of a famed expatriate piano virtuoso. The novel’s own borrowings do something rather similar; here's an Amazon link to the novel: Hungry Generations: a novel].
My next post weekly posts will explore some features of modern fiction (and perhaps soon, modern music).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Notes on the Modern period - 13 - Williams and "no ideas but in things"

I hope to explore here the contrast between poetry by William Carlos Williams (along with other home-grown Americans) and the poetry I’ve discussed by Eliot – particularly in terms of their differing ideas of “modernism” and of a distinctly modern engagement with ideas of perception as well as with death, both spiritual and physical death.

Williams once wrote that Pound (with his European ‘orientation’) is “the best enemy United States verse has…. [The poetry] of which Americans have the parts and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond the attempts of his thought.” In the “Prologue to Kora in Hell” (in 1918), Williams criticizes the tradition-obsessed, allusion-cluttered Eurocentrism of Pound and Eliot. He writes that “I praise those who have the wit and courage, and the conventionality, to go deeper toward their vision of perfection…where the signposts are clearly marked, viz, to London. But [I] confine them to hell for their paretic assumption that there is no alternative but their own groove.”

Of course, far from paralyzed, Pound’s poetry moves through a sort of divine comedy but in reverse: he starts on the high ground of the charged, stripped down, musically perfected image, descends through the great eloquently satiric ramble of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and many of the Cantos, dispensing for our benefit all his rants and all his knowledge of world literature, and he ends with the Pisan Cantos, where – incarcerated for treason in 1945 by the U.S. in a Pisa prison camp – he intersperses his polyglot rants with moments when he starts once again from scratch, creating fragments of poetry from scraps of perception in his cage amid the wasps and clover: “mint springs up again / in spite of Jones’ rodents / as had the clover by the gorilla cage / with a four-leaf // When the mind swings by a grass-blade / an ant’s forefoot shall save you / the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower.”

Despite the self-pitying bits, Pound connects up here with the Whitman tradition, of which Williams is the foremost modern expression. In “Leaves of Grass,” for example in the sixth poem in “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s mind certainly “swings by a grass blade” and more: “A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands…. / I guess the grass is itself a child . . . the produced babe of the vegetation… / And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Finally he thinks that “the smallest sprout” defies death since “it led forward life… and [death] ceased the moment life appeared,” as if the poem like the grassy field were a threshold where life and death meet and together endure in a sort of negotiation lasting as long as art lasts.

Engagement of death and disaster certainly exist for Williams – think of “To Elsie” and countless other of his poems. Williams imagines death as giving way “sluggish” and straggling not only to rebirth but almost literally to birth, for we are here contacting an imagination formed partly by years of Williams’ work as a pediatrician (for decades bringing babies into this world and sustaining their lives for years after – I’m reminded too that Williams, like Pound, was a great friend of poets and nurtured many a young poet toward publication).

Among his poems, a fine example of the process of death’s ‘giving way’ is “Spring and All,” which begins with a blighted scene worthy of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and its rejection of Chaucer’s images of spring. “By the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind,” and there is “the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds…dead, brown leaves” and “leafless vines” – here, though, halfway through the poem dominated so far by fragmentary dependent phrases, Williams begins to see a new process operate in the “sluggish” weeds: “Lifeless in appearance…dazed spring approaches.” On a sort of threshold between life and death, the grasping for life begins; the shaping metaphor of a newly birthed baby underlies the image of the weeds. “They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter. All about them / the cold, familiar wind – // Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf.” The leaf, the grass, the root have sprung as if from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to struggle with death once more in Williams’ poetry, where the shadowing image of the baby’s birth trumps all that residue of the wasteland: “But now the stark dignity of / entrance – Still, the profound change / has come upon them: rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.” In Williams’ mode of writing, the things of this life, of the earth and the body, “matter.” And the sensuous upwelling of this vital matter in language outlasts death; to use Whitman’s image, it leads life forward through death to become the matter of American poetry. From the start of this distinctly American ‘tradition,’ Whitman himself sought to transform the enclosed, mirror-like, auto-erotic world of self-conscious perception into a vehicle for more deeply and immediately engaging the “things” perceived: the earth and the body. In the Preface to “Leaves of Grass,” he imagines breaking beyond the flaneur’s self-consciously detached vantage of perception, and like the Lawrentian hero in “Women in Love,” Whitman would “plunge his semitic muscle” into the grassy land of America.

In a William poem’s version of this union with the object of perception, poetry has the force of perception itself and, in a sense, become the thing perceived. “No ideas but in things” is Williams’ phrase for the process; partly he is questioning Wallace Stevens’ related poems about perception, poems which share with phenomenology a delving sense of the nature of perception even as they display an ironic playfulness in presenting the role self-consciousness has in it. Both Williams and Stevens express the Whitmanesque yearning to reveal how poetry’s self-awareness can achieve a creative entry into and oneness with the perceived world, whether in the guise of the human child’s birth and rooting down, or the guise of the simple “jar” placed on a hill in Tennessee to dominate nature there, or the guise of the woman’s voice drifting over the harbor on a Key West evening, enriching and composing or ‘ordering’ the scene in Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there is a connection in modernity between sensuous immediacy and ordering, self-conscious abstraction. In my next post I hope to explore the connection with regard to modern art itself, using Picasso as one example.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Notes on the Modern period - 12: Eliot's Purgatory

T. S. Eliot’s poetry traces one arc of the modern, a development from self-questioning aestheticism, through an often violent, experimental vision of the modern ‘wasteland,’ to a retrenchment or contraction of ambition – whether in adopting neoclassical forms, in focusing on ideological critique (either from the left or the right), or in performing a sort of purgation of the modern waste of spirit. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” exemplifies that retrenchment and contraction. (See Eliot's Four Quartets.)

I’ll concentrate here on “Little Gidding,” which was written at the start of the Nazi bombardment of England, 1940-41. This poem, like the other “Quartets,” speaks above all in the form of oxymoron, in paradoxes which continually take back any assertion of living vitality. In part I, the initial, sensuous image of “midwinter spring” (“Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers”) is framed by a continuous and stark taking-back: “with frost and fire, / The brief sun flames the ice… / In windless cold that is the heart’s heat.” Or “no wind, but Pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” Trapped inside a sort of machine of negation, all the brilliant energy of Eliot’s characteristic use of rhetorical repetition (threaded together with small, haunting changes and embroidered by random rhymes) here avoids any evocation of the sloppy, grimy struggles of living which simultaneously besmirch and enliven “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” In the second stanza, the phrase “if you came” becomes a repeated apposition eloquently leading us down a path into the zone of death’s purgatory at “the world’s end.” The only solace is the yearning language of an abstractly unfolding prayer, and the crucial repeated image is that of purgatorial fire: “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

In part II of “Little Gidding,” we experience bombed London as the scene of an implacable apocalypse, and onto this cityscape, Eliot leads the ghost of Yeats, who is made to offer Eliot-like advice and self-critique from the beyond the grave. This Yeats is stripped of all his late inspiration: his taking on the Crazy Jane persona in “Word to Music, Perhaps,” or his locating the source of his images in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” or his monument-building “Under Ben Bulben.” No, Eliot’s Yeats becomes a pale version of Mallarmé: his “concern was speech, and speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe” – purified and prayerful language must be purged of the “sting” and “stain” of life and “restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.” The form of that restoration is an ascetic, neo-classical retrieval of Dante’s terza rima – to “move in measure,” though without Dante’s intricate rhyme scheme or the pathos and fecundity of Dante’s images, as Eliot here echoes scenes from Dante’s Purgatorio and particularly Inferno (Canto xv where Dante’s meets with his damned teacher Brunetto Latini).

Part III introduces into the cycle of prayer – the movement toward “detachment” and the “transfigured” – the figure of a fourteenth century mystic, Dame Julia of Norwich, whose repeated incantation that “all shall be well” becomes “a symbol: / A symbol perfected in death.” In this pure, autonomous, and even claustrophobically closed cycle, prayer feeds on itself, becoming the “ground” of prayer. The brief part IV is another eloquent evocation of burning “incandescent terror” descending on both bombed London and the enclosed ascetic spirit; such is the double fire of purgatory and of the burning city. The prayer emerging from “tongues” of flame conveys that implacable purgatorial vision: “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.” Part V is the poem’s concluding “movement” and uses a public, didactic prosody “where every word is at home…neither diffident nor ostentatious” – Dryden-like and neoclassical in manner – which reminds us that Eliot is affirming not only an idea (and ideology) of purgatorial fire but also, in a moment of peril, his profound Anglophilia: “History is now and England.” The great assurance and authority of Eliot’s voice operate here in tone and diction to proclaim the purgatorial cycling of spirit and of language itself; in this vision (akin to that in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) all writing is rewriting, and “every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.” The authority of Eliot’s “we” reveals the ultimate tradition he celebrates: “We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.” England was, of course, victorious by the end of World War II, but Eliot’s “Little Gidding” suggests the claustrophobia and contraction of spirit which beset Eliot’s vision not only of his nation but of Western Civilization, of its failure and self-destruction in its second cataclysmic war to end all wars. In this poem “consumed by either fire or fire,” Eliot envisions – and celebrates – a purgatorial incineration haunting modernity.

“The Four Quartets” also represent Eliot’s attempt to find in language a parallel form to Beethoven’s four late quartets. These quartets from the 1820s abjure much of the forward thrust of dramatic structure in Beethoven’s previous quartets; those earlier works’ arc of development and their momentum in rhythm and harmony give way in the late works to exfoliating abstruse melodies, which seem sometimes simple and yet continually violate expectations of closure and movement, both harmonically and rhythmically. The slowing of momentum and the interruption of the dramatic arc enable Beethoven to render states of transcendent serenity, spiritual exploration, and sometimes violent fragmentation; the vital, often off-beat, experimental quality of the music breaks new ground in classical music. It does so with a sort of unleashed expressiveness, a creative upwelling which makes Beethoven’s four late quartets one of the great achievements in the history of classical music. Eliot’s ambition (or perhaps his pretention) is to associate his own late poems with the quartets for a variety of reasons, both structural and spiritual, and the most significant of these reasons is that the poems aim to consecrate the state of transcendence associated with Beethoven’s late quartets. That association between the poems and the quartets is questionable, as I hope I’ve shown, for Beethoven’s works are the opposite of a recantation or retrenchment. The music conveys an inspired and generous fertility of feeling, and its constantly exfoliating inventiveness both embraces past musical technique and forecasts future technique. Beethoven’s late quartets do not mark a withdrawal into the circle of purgatorial fire, which constitutes the curtailed vision of Eliot’s ascetic late poems.