Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chat With An Editor

Chat With An Editor is a wonderful service, offered each year at the MLA, that offers graduate students and beginning professors the opportunity to confer with editors of major journals in several fields about the  questions that arise in submitting and evaluating a learned journal article--how to prepare articles, the nature of the referee process, the state of the field and the relevance of different paradigms and approaches. Please see the schedule of available slots below

CELJ’s “Chat with an Editor” Schedule, MLA Convention, Seattle, Washington
January 6 and 7, 2012
Room 2A, Washington State Convention Center
To reserve a time to speak with an editor, please email Richard Kopley at    
Thank you!

Fri., Jan. 6            9 a.m.,  Marshall Brown, MLQ—reserved

                                9:20, Marshall Brown, MLQ--reserved

                                9:40, Marshall Brown, MLQ

                                10, Batya Weinbaum, Femspec

                                10:20, Batya Weinbaum, Femspec

                                10:40, Batya Weinbaum, Femspec

                                11, Caroline Hong, Journal of Transnational American Studies—reserved

                                11:20, Caroline Hong, Journal of Transnational American Studies--reserved

                                11:40, Caroline Hong, Journal of Transnational American Studies

                                12 noon, Jana Argersinger, ESQ and Poe Studies

                                12:20 pm., Jana Argersinger, ESQ and Poe Studies

                                12:40, Jana Argersinger, ESQ and Poe Studies

Sat., Jan. 7           9 a.m., John Bryant, Leviathan

                                9:20, John Bryant, Leviathan

                                9:40, John Bryant, Leviathan

                                10, Nathan Grant, African American Review

                                10:20, Nathan Grant, African American Review

                                10:40, Nathan Grant, African American Review

                                11, Cat TosenbergerJeunnesse--reserved

                                11:20, Cat TosenbergerJeunnesse

                                11:40, Cat TosenbergerJeunnesse

                                12 noon, Malcolm Compitello, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

                                12:20 p.m., Malcolm Compitello, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

                                12:40, Malcolm Compitello, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

Friday, December 9, 2011

Consoling a Cardinal fan on the loss of Albert Pujols

I wrote to a Cardinal fan: "As a Met fan, having just lost Reyes, I feel very similarly; losing a homegrown player who had really bonded with the fans. I think you do root for the tradition, the retired numbers, the people in the organization (who if you follow a team for a long time you come to know and have a meaningful relationship with). Also, in practice, the Cardinals in 2017 are not going to have t pay a declining Pujols and will have a lot of payroll flexibility. The Cardinals are really one of the three storied franchises in baseball, along with the Dodgers and (ack) the Yankees, and the departure of one player will not change this."

I have had to write  a few of these, it is like writing condolence letters when a loved one has died. It is astounding how psychologically important relationships are with these people, whom we have never met, do not affect the practicalities of our lives, but are important to us....

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reading the Other

       I just finished Carol de Dobay Rifelj’s Reading the Other. This is a fascinating book applying the question of how truly we can ever know the world, others, and ourselves to an intriguing mix of novelists--Anglophone popular fiction (Arthur Canon Doyle and Dashiell Hammett), French fiction of intricate psychology (Mérimée, Villiers de L'Isle Adam,  and Proust) and a writer who oddly might be said to syncretize the above: Anthony Powell. I paid the most attention to the Powell chapter, but the entire book is worth noting, as an instance of philosophical criticism done rigorously but lucidly, in a way useful for a class. (I occasionally teach The Maltese Falcon, and next time I do I will make sure my students are exposed to Rifelj's analysis of Sam Spade and his "incapacity to trust"). Rifelj is to some extent a disciple of Stanley Cavell, and, through him, Wittgenstein, but what I liked about her work is that, unlike the first and popular costructions of the second, she does not see skepticism or the evincing or encouraging of radical doubt as inherently limiting to our ability to live in community sometimes we need, precisely to sustain ourselves as a community,  a sense of enigma, encryption, the asymptotic: some ties, as Robert Frost put it (meaning to operate in the realm of epistemology as well as property) "Good fences make good neighbors."  Private mysteries and the public weal can sometiems fruitfully co-exist. 
       Although I recommend the entire book, I am going to concentrate on Rifelj's treatment of Powell, the author with whom I have been most concerned with professionally. 
       I think Powell himself would have very much liked being in a book largely devoted to French writers, especially Proust, the one writer who he openly acknowledged as a model. I think Powell would have also appreciated how the theme of other people, how much we can ever really know them, and the cognitive uncertainty attendant on that is both in itself an interesting philosophical problem and a manifest theme in Powell’s works. One does not feel a philosophical agenda is larded over the characters of Dance, but that Rifelj is reading the philosophical implications of Jenkins’s musings of how much we can ever know about the lives (marriages, goals, hopes, inner promptings) of others. (Again, one has to say that Rifelj is one of the few critics to deploy the theories of Cavell without becoming a captive to them and without seeing skepticism; as the enemy; she concludes her analysis of Powell by saying Powell’s goal is not to overcome skepticism but to help us to live with it, which is refreshing given that when most critics mention Cavell they seem to want to force us into a homey, prematurely consensual post-skepticism). She shows how Jenkins, and the narrative he marshals, is curious about others but not pruriently so, wants to know as much as possible about others but respects their essential mystery. I think Rifelj’s book is very welcome in Powell studies since it is not just a guidebook, but also a treatment of a specific, complex theme in which Powell is seen as on a par with other great writers. As said before, that it is in a comparative and transnational literary context makes it all the more valuable. To my mind, Rifelj exceeds Robert Selig’s nonetheless fine and valuable narratological study published at about the same time, Time and Anthony Powell, in that, whereas Selig ingeniously analyzed the text’s narrative modes in the style of Gérard Gentte, Rifelj, who also cites Genette's work on Proust, sees the cognitive implications of those modes. (For another book that discusses the cognition of rhetoric, see Raphael Lyne's excellent new book on Shakespeare and cognition). For instance when Rifelj mentioned “second-degree speculation,” when Jenkins cites what other people say about still other people, she does not just note it as a procedure but shows how that technique impacts our sense of how other people are known. Rifelj explicitly distances herself from seeing Dance as social history, but given the importance of gossip—what we say about others and to what degree it is true—her speculations on how we can ever possibly know others provides the basis for seeing how the sequence’s social history works.
     As with any good piece of criticism, Rifelj’s treatment of Powell made me recognize aspects of the text I had not noticed before, What Rifelj, following John Russell (the literary critic, not the art critic) calls “dialogue scrolls”—those five to ten line exchanges of staccato, stichomythic dialogue so characteristic of Powellian conversatiins--are particularly exemplified in Jenkins’s relationship with Jean Templer. In reading Rifelj's quotation of them, I realized a) Jenkins often has similar dialogue scrolls with his eventual wife, Isobel b) although very similar in form, they are very different in tone, and that tells us something about why one relationship failed and the other succeeded, information that, as Rifelj points out, is not at all manifest in the text due to Jenkins’s reserve and reticence. In addition, it was not until Rifeljs' analysis of Pendry's suicide that I realized both Pendry and, in the next book, Biggs killed themselves during the war. This not only testifies to the emotional ravages or wartime pressures—and makes Powell into a more nuanced and tragic observer of war than is usually thought—but also intersperses the ‘mobilized’ deaths—the deaths of people like Priscilla and Chips Lovell that tally with the narratives overall frame—with less mobilized, more random deaths, as if even tragedies are divided into events which fit into a pattern and those which, cruelly do not.
       To look again at the company into which Rifelj placed Powell, to take Mérimée, Proust, Conan Doyle, and Hammett together, one gets a group of writers that are both storytellers and philosophers, diagnosing in different ways the mysteries of life. Rifelj's work (which I was unaware of until Joe Trenn of The Bookshed mentioned it to me, and which thus I lamentably failed to include in the bibliography of Understanding Anthony Powell) is just the kind of work on Powell we should be seeing more of--not an introductory overview, unafraid to go outside his immediate social and generational context to put the writer up against more transverse and broadening contents. I regret Rifelj, who taught French at Middlebury and died in 2010, never had a chance to attend an Anthony Powell Society meeting or conference. But her work is major, and it will continue to reverberate henceforward.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Anthony Powell's Afternoon Men

I feel I have come to a more 'lyrical' view of what Powell himself thought was his most 'lyrical' novel--one which gets to the heart of what’s afoot in the book rather than skips and starts in response to the many distractions that a book so short surprisingly offers. Does the author approve of 'afternoon men' or not? And is he an 'afternoon man?' We know what an afternoon man is, someone (as indicated in the quote from Robert Burton, a seventeenth-century author just, in the early 1930s, beginning to be noticed again in the wake of the new, post-Eliotic interest in that century) who is lazy (but not deliberately so), hedonistic (but not foolishly so), and aimless, although, as Powell himself said of his Third at Oxford, without the reassurance to having worked hard to have an aim. Roughly, it is a synonym for "Bright Young Things." It is one of four of Powell's novels--Agents and Patients, The Military Philosophers, Temporary Kings being the other, about a 'set' of people. (The Kindly Ones does not qualify, as Furies are presumably not 'people'). In all four cases, I would argue, Powell's stance towards that set is observant, not judgmental, neither propagandizing for or against the set, merely registering it as a part of life. Yet part of the book's tacit mission is "generational": the young first novelist recently down from Oxford and living a bohemian life in Shepherd's Market, taking stock of his own generation, as with most accused by its elders of being slack and having thrown out too many of the previous cohorts' absolutes. 

Most times it is fairly clear, when a novel has a title denoting a set of people, whether the author is or is not included in the set. Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans is obvious; Kerouac was a subterranean. So is C. P. Snow's The New Men: Snow was a new man. On the other hand, Dostoyevsky was certainly not one of the possessed (or the devils), although insightful enough to know their psychology. Nor was Balzac one of the Chouans, although there is historical distance involved. Throughout his career, Powell seems to want to avoid the sort of novel that delves into the depths of a single character. But how to create a point of view and also describe a set of people? Dance proffers the ultimate Powellian solution to this, but the experimentation towards this goal begins in Afternoon Men

But it is unclear whether the novel means to celebrate afternoon men, excoriate them, rib them, or something in-between. The novel clearly shows the influence of Hemingway and a generally stripped-down, austere syntax. Whereas John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham were clearly the next step on from the Victorian novel, as in a different, and less admitted, way were E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Powell's style, though,  is not just a further step, another generation down,  of the sort that can be seen in the work of Snow and of Sir Angus Wilson, who remain in recognizable, continuous touch with Victorian modes. With this novel, there is deliberate severance. The social tableau has been atomized into shards and fragments, and at the end of the book is still not remotely put together. When Powell does re-stitch the fabric in Dance, it has been totally disassembled and reassembled. This is how and why Dance is not just a slightly later Forsyte Saga, and why Jenkins cannot share General Liddament's love of Trollope.

There is no nineteenth-century omniscience in Afternoon Men,  no general assertions about society or life. In a sense, the book is reportage, not opinion or summation, and none of the other prewar novels have quite this quality of reporting on a 'scene.' In a sense, there is more naturalism here than elsewhere in Powell's 1930s oeuvre, although comic and/or metafictive elements, such as Pringle's reappearance after his presumed death, the Wodehousian quality of names like Nosworth, militate against this.

Two longstanding critical questions can now be seen as conclusively settled: the book is not anti-Semitic; just because Verelst is said to be a Jew does not mean the author who created him is anti-Semitic. Indeed, Atwater--not any overarching narrator, but Atwater, the man who did not get the girl, concludes that Verelst deserves Susan, at least to an extent. The only mildly anti-Semitic remark is made by Mr. Nunnery, an older man of a stodgier generation, not particularly thrilled to see his daughter go off with a Jew, and Atwater’s even milder assent to that may just be to get through the conversation with this difficult old chap. In the first printing, 'jew,' along with all other adjectives, was not capitalized in e. e. cummings style, but that does not make it anti-Semitic either. Similarly, when Fotheringham speaks of wanting to find "something that brings me into touch with people who really mattered, authors and so on," this is clearly the final form of the line in the Writer’s Notebook to the effect that "I want to meet Chesterton, Belloc, writers who count"--exempting Powell from the conclusion of having had Roman Catholic tendencies otherwise unevidenced (which some reviewers of Writer's Notebook thought he was actually professing.)  In other words, this phrase was meant to be dialogue (given to a minor character, Fotheringham), not avowed utterance. In general, Afternoon Men is ideologically uncommitted--in a way that Dance is not--and books and ideas do not play a large role in the character's lives, even though several are involved in publishing or the arts. We are far from the elevated, intellectually plugged-in world of Powell's postwar sequence. 

The most important difference between Afternoon Men and Dance, though, is that Dance is a first-person retrospective narrative by someone who has 'gotten the girl', Afternoon Men a limited, third-person account of someone who has not 'gotten the girl.' The book is an intense chronicle of unrequited and futile love from the point of view of a character who experiences little but futility in his life. "And so she was gone, ridiculous, lovely creature, absurdly hopeless and impossible love who was and always had been so far away. Absurdly lovely, hopeless creature who was gone away so that he would never see her again and would only remember her as an absurdly hopeless love." The repetition here captures both clinical distance  (as in the manner of Hemingway and even Gertrude Stein) and melancholy abandonment, as this is just how someone suddenly desolated in love would muse and mourn.  Susan Nunnery is comparable to Barbara Goring in Dance; but as compared to the portrait of Barbara there is far more of a wistfulness, even at times a passion, about how Susan is evoked. For all the book's stoic detachment, and all its complete eschewal of melodrama or self-pity, these emotions are vividly present, and, for all the Cubist or Art Deco style of the characters--surface-oriented, parodic, mordant, well captured by, sixty years apart, both the Misha Black and Susan Macartney-Snape covers--there is real feeling here. Some of this feeling is redolent of the book's immediate precursor, Michael Arlen's The Green Hat, whose finest quality is a delicate, bittersweet lyricism. But Powell's more severe style makes it different here. The lyricism, though, is in sharp contrast to the acrid, bitter tone of Powell's great contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, who in books like the brilliant Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall mounted one of the few twentieth-century satiric efforts to truly merit the Swiftian tag of saeva indignatio. Waugh's fiery, early books, it must be said, are far more laugh-out-loud funny than Powell's reserved ironies, although Afternoon Men does have the hilarious set-piece of Pringle's 'death.' 

Afternoon Men has a great many characters for such a short novel. Scheigan, Verelst, Atwater, Pringle, Dr. Crutch, Nosworth, Lola, Trimble, Susan Nunnery, George Nunnery, Barlow, Wauchop, Spurgeon, Brisket, Naomi Race, not to mention the nameless Welshman and Czech. This is a far broader set of characters than the other prewar novels have, especially since there is no real distinguishing, Atwater and perhaps Pringle and Susan aside, between 'major' and 'minor,' background and foreground. In the breadth of characters, Powell was gesturing to the wide social canvas eventually achieved in Dance, and indeed Powell's comment, in the Journals, that Afternoon Men  (presumably more than the other four prewar novels) was the germ of Dance must take its bearing from this aspect. In general, Afternoon Men seems to have been an important book for Powell, as much so as any of the subsequent 1930s  novels; it was not simply a novice's first effort, but an indicative formulation of Powell's early idiom, as analyzed by Powell's first, highly percipient critic, Geoffrey Uther Ellis (in Twilight on Parnassus). Even in his late Journals, Powell was still thinking and musing about this book written in his mid-twenties.

Here is a photo of my more than slightly foxed original 1970s paperback; I can say I have been reading this book for well over three decades. It is in very much a mass-market format; on the back pages, many other novelists are advertised (including my mother's romance-writing college classmate, Susan Hufford) but of these Anne Tyler is the only one that can be considered at all high-literary, the rest romance or gothic or adventure writers. This shows that the early Powell books were, in the 1970s, thought to have potential to sell well and to please a wide audience in the United States, though I am not sure on what basis (perhaps people who liked Upstairs, Downstairs or The Forsyte Saga on TV--but the bohemian London of Afternoon Men is a far cry, and not only temporally, from the core Edwardian milieu of both of these). I doubt this 1970s reprint of Afternoon Men sold more than moderately well at best. Again we are back to the most salient feature of early Powell--that it is not Galsworthy, and in fact eschews the Galsworthian social canvas even more than Dance did. This is perhaps why some readers of Powell's generation or the subsequent one, such as the late Sir Frank Kermode, preferred the prewar novels, in their austerity and irony, to Dance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Henry VI plays

In the midst of all the hubbub of Mobility Shifts (to be blogged about eventually)  and of teaching three classes and doing who knows what else, I took three hours or so to see the New School for Drama's production of an abridged version of the three Henry VI plays. These are famously under-discussed in Shakespeare criticism; the late plays have an entire critical apparatus about them, centered around ideas of 'romance' and more recently 'late style,' ideas that can encompass even plays of debated quality and authorship like The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII. Early Shakespeare, by contrast, has little constituency, despite some classic treatments  by scholars such as Theodore Weiss; although the early comedies, A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona, have thrived in performance (and musical adaptation) they have not always attracted the most rigorous criticism. The Henry VI trilogy does not even have the crowd--pleasing aspect of these comedies. Full of referents--people, places, contexts--that still meant something to Shakespeare’s audience, where the times described were on more distant than those of the 1880s re to us, but that mean little even to the most historically acculturated. Whereas Shakespeare’s other history plays can get by on their psychology and dramatic action and a sprinkling of knowledge, the Henry VI plays cannot. And this is after Shakespeare has smoothed to the chronology considerably by not including, in the material covered by the third play, Warwick’s turnabout and Henry VI's brief re-ascension of the throne. 

Moreover, Henry VI is such an uncharismatic figure--sickly, pious without really being holy, somebody whose inability to effectively occupy the space of the monarchy allows for the excessive sway of the regent, Humphrey of Gloucester, in the first play; the rebellion of the peasant leader Jack Cade in the second; and the rebellion of the Duke of York and his offspring in the third play, couched in terms of legitimacy (that become increasingly mechanistic, as every royal aspirant whom somebody or other does not like is deemed illegitimate and a usurper, slightly in the manner of the Obama 'Birther' controversy) but in fact conceived in terms of competence. if Henry VI had been competent, the Yorkist cause would have had no place to stand; it is not comparable e.g. to the Carlist cause in the Spanish nineteenth century which was certainly based on legitimacy.

Thus one cannot cast Brad Pitt as Henry IV; one wither has to have an ineffectual-looking male actor or a female, which also raises interesting issues of gender politics, The director of the new School production, Casey Biggs (who I saw, superbly, play Claudius in the 2009 Theater for a New Audience Hamlet (with Christian Camargo as Hamlet) uses nontraditional casting both to comment on the King’s inherent unkingliness and also to make the tableau more dynamic, make it less historical and more dramatic. The bare- Butoh-influenced staging and the sense both of bleak despair and dark melancholy the stage's white tableau suggested added to a deracination necessary to take the play out of a strict referentiality. Surprisingly the abridgment into a manageable three hours' traffic did not damage the play appreciably; its three parts--that centering of Humphrey’s regency and the slow war of attrition, elevated by the stunning, unpredictably emergence of Joan of Arc, that made the formerly heroic English invasion of France into a quagmire, that centering on Jack Cade’s rebellion; and that centering on the Lancaster-York rivalry--were intact. The Cade play has always been my and most critics' favorite, and its cadences and attitudes are noticeably Shakespearean, so much so that, admittedly intuitively, I do not think he had a collaborator for it, I see it is largely by Shakespeare’s own hand. Not only are the humorous byplay and linguistic riffing on the dramatic situation consummately Shakespearean--and absent in plays I consider falsely ascribed to Shakespeare such as Edward III—but Shakespeare’s skepticism of the fickleness of the crowd and populist leader’s seen in plays such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Troilus and Cressida, is manifest here. It is too much, though, to say Shakespearean takes the side of King against peasant, the establishment versus anarchy. He recognizes that the ineffectuality of the king is what has provoked this, and generally that the reign of Henry VI, with its inexorable slide from the glories of Agincourt into civil strife and desuetude, is some sort of karmic payback for the arrogance of the English monarchy’s overreaching in its claim to the French throne. Moreover, he is worried about the anti-intellectualism of Cade’s populism, with its desire to kill off all the lawyers and clerics,  worried that a rage against the establishment will kill off high culture as well. Cade himself is confused about his relationship to the establishment, being a populist leader proud that his father was a bricklayer, yet simultaneously claiming descent from Edward III and the status of Ear of Mortimer. Cade challenges the personnel of the monarchical institution, but not the idea of monarchy--he does not have the imagination to do it, and in all the above plays Shakespeare's biggest critique of the crowd over and above its caprice and inconstancy, is its lack of imagination.

The New School production, which had begun with reciting the “O for a muse of fire’’ invocation of heavy V, ended with the scowling Richard of York, made no happier by his brother’s ascension to the throne, snarling, "Now is the winter of our discontent….” Although Edward, as the legitimate son of the Duke of York, inherits the throne which would have been his father's had not the Lancastrians gotten to him, Richard, in the last part of 3 Henry VI, asserts that he has the same name as his father, so is in some sense the real heir. Legitimacy has been boiled down to a farrago of interlocking and almost nonsensical assertions; the genie that has been taken out of the bottle by the overthrow of Richard II cannot be re-sealed; the very idea of royal legitimacy has been splintered into a multitude of improvable claims. By showing us the arc of history between Shakespeare’s toe most famous history plays, Biggs and the New School for Drama actors have shown us how daring it was for Shakespeare to write these plays, among the first depicting an attested historical event in English drama (thus going very much up against the Aristotelian tradition), and how they should receive far more attention in the context of Shakespeare’s overall achievement.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Eulogy for Samuel Menashe

I first heard of Samuel Menashe in the mid-1980s through reading British poetry periodicals such as PN Review and Agenda. I was struck by the way articles in these periodicals referred to a living American poet I had not heard of as if he were already part of the firmament, already integrated into the fabric of universally assumed references. When the University of Maine Press released his Collected Poems in 1986, i bought them and became familiar with his work. As a consequence of this, in 1991, when I was asked to write for an anthology on poems more or less of my own choosing, I chose Samuel's poem "Curriculum Vitae"

Scribe out of work
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with
The man life passed by
Stands at the window
Biding his time.

Time and again.
And now once more
I climb these stairs
Unlock this door
No name where I live
alone in my lair
With one bone to pick
And no time to spare.

I knew that this poem referred to Menashe's fifth-floor walkup, where, the British poet and critic Donald Davie had put it, he lived "alone and frugally." Little did I know that,in the course of cleaning out Menashe's papers, I myself would Mount those five flights of stairs hundreds and hundreds of times.

I later published two more essays on Samuel's work (four in total, but two more before I met him). Yet, as Samuel contantly reminded me, I made no attempt to contact him. Just as Samuel, when young in Paris after the Second World War, never even thought he would meet a poet, yet alone become one, at that point I did not see that any poet I wrote on would want to be contacted by me. We were finally introduced in 2002 through the agency of a senior American author (you can work out who she is from the context, since I have provided the gender) who suggested to a retired literary critic who had taught at CUNY that a new article be written on Menashe's work, that he was still underrated even though his recent omnibus volume The Niche Narrows had received very positive notice. I met Samuel in December 2002 and wrote a long piece about him for The Hollins Critic.
     I never thought Samuel and I would become friends, he was forty years older than I was (though, perhaps significantly, born in a -5 year--1925--like me, and for that matter, Anthony Powell, about whom I was writing at the time, was born in a -5 year as well, 1905). Yet Samuel and I developed such a rapport that we would talk several times a week and would meet usually once a week or every two weeks to see a literary event. (Samuel set the record both for going to literary events in New York and for getting autographed books signed. He is the Cal Ripken Jr or the Joe DiMaggio of these records; they will not be broken). I also became, along with his friends of far longer standing, a principal interlocutor of his new poetry, including some of the most exciting of his 'ultimate poems,' which I got to see in their meticulous working-out. Here is 'Rue':

For what I did   
And did not do   
And do without   
In my old age   
Rue, not rage   
Against that night   
We go into,   
Sets me straight   
On what to do   
Before I die—   
Sit in the shade,   
Look at the sky.   

Here is a recording of Samuel reading the poem. It feels eerie to hear his voice, so strong and confident; this would have been in 2006 or so, before he became ill and frail; I am still used to the ill,frail Samuel, but tend to forget that until 2009 or so he was still at the height of his vigor, not, as goes the Dylan Thomas line alluding to in that poem, going gently at all into that good night.

But my friendship with Samuel was not one-sided or confined to his own poetry. We talked about poetry, the Bible, literature in general, politics. He was often a crucial backchannel reader or editor of my own work, at first the subsequent essays I wrote on his poetry, then, as I became increasingly ware of his intellectual breadth--Samuel loved the word 'breadth'--and learning on virtually every aspect of my work. As I will come back to later, the man was not just a great poet but also an intellectual.

I was very privileged to know Samuel in the years he finally got his due recognition; the Neglected Master award from the Poetry Foundation in 2004; regular publication in the premier little magazines of our day; increasing awe and respect from younger writers such as the award-winning novelist Colum McCann, who inscribed a short story of his to Samuel with these words: "We have taken our voice from yours." As much as Samuel was wont to rue his earlier lack of recognition, he understood what a gift and a miracle his being loved and respected in his own lifetime was; after all, none of his great idols among the poets of the past two centuries--William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins--had received anything like this.
   I think that God, or whatever agency you prefer to impute these things to, placed me in Samuel’s life when he needed me; both when his career was finally becoming as spectacular as it should always have been, and when he needed logistical help of the sort I, being relatively young and geographically proximate was able to provide. It was wonderful for me to be able to give help and care in a way that I think mattered.

 (For more of the eulogy you will have to come to the memorial service at the Synagogue for the Arts. 49 White St (two blocks south of Canal, west of Broadway), Thursday, October 27, at 7 PM. 

Friday, October 7, 2011


I am very surprised that the selection of Tomas Tranströmer as this year’s Nobel laureate in literature is at all controversial. Tranströmer has been well known to followers of poetry for over thirty-five years, since Robert Bly translated him in the 70s. (It may have even been the 60s). These posts by Teju Cole and David Ulin sum up his virtues very well, but I was surprised by some of the detractors. Of course there are always those upset when an American does not win or when an author is not a household name, but, in the latter case, these critics never seem sated when a household name--and Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, the late Harold Pinter, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, and Orhan Pamuk are that in the world of highbrow letters--do win. 
    Posts such as Tim Parks's strangely (for such an accomplished writer) misunderstand the nature of the prize. The prize is not primarily for writers under fifty; it is not about potential or the best book of the year. It takes the longer view, and that is its value; it is designed not to succumb to the trends of the moment, but to weigh writers and have a conversation about them. This countercultural tendency is the finest thing about the prize. If it just rewarded the trends of the culture now, many prizewinners would look very bad thirty years from now, as is true of the book-centered prizes for national literatures. Even as is, some Noble choices inevitably look hackneyed or dated, even ones made with the best of intentions. If the Nobel were redesigned along the lines of the Booker, as Parks seems to want, it would be even more so. 

I also do not understand the criticism of the Swedish Academy giving it to a Swede. Is the idea that Swedes should be ineligible Or that just because some Swedes won it early on who did not deserve it deserving Swedes now should have to atone for this? A great writer in Swedish (albeit a Finnish Swede), Bo Carpelan, died a few years back without ever having won the prize, and if he were not Swedish speaking his chances would have been much better. Tranströmer himself, at 80, was near to this fate as well. Two generations have passed since a Swede won it, and it is clear that it was the quality of the work that was being honored and indeed the judges if anything had qualms about awarding it to a Swede. I wonder why some critics are anti-Swedish or anti-Tranströmer? Do they see his having worked (before his illness) as a prison psychiatrist as too social-programy, too much like water flouridation? Is it because they are people of the Right and still see Sweden as a socialist welfare state? Under the leadership of Fredrik Reinfeldt it is hardly that now....

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tuncel's Genealogy of the Spectacle

My New School colleague Yunus Tuncel has just published a groundbreaking book, Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle. This handsomely produced book (Eye Corner Press)  is important because Tuncel rehabilitates the spectacle from two species of opprobrium: social and aesthetic. Social, because, as Tuncel points out, modern authoritarian leaders have exploited mythic patterns and symbols in a crypto-populist way that the ancient world did not itself understand, but which tropes from antiquity provided a powerful substrate for their noxious propaganda, in which "myth becomes convoluted and confounded with nationhood" (77). Moreover, the absorption of the spectator in the spectacle (the two words interestingly aligned much as Paul Kottman, another New School colleague, has pointed out with respect to 'theory' and 'theater') has been unfashionable ever since the Russian Formalists, with their 'laying bare the device', and Brecht, with his "alienation effect." Really the idea of the spectacle today is confined, as Tuncel says, to the most banalized spheres, such as Disney shows and the Super Bowl. (Even in contemporary sports, the spectacle is being pierced, as in the case of Moneyball, one of whose effects is to 'lay bare the device' of what actually goes on in baseball, rather than to just look at the 'spectacle’ of on field play. Indeed, as a former student of mine showed in her senior thesis a few years ago, the behind-the-scenes quality of Moneyball (the book) had a plausible alignment with beyond-formalism quality  of many postmodern aesthetic theories. Tuncel, one of whose great interests is sports history, would presumably not take this aside too amiss--or the observation that, if they lived today, Aeschylus would be a Yankee fan, Sophocles a Met fan, Aristophanes a Cub fan, Euripides a Tampa Bay Ray fan. 

So spectacle needs to be rescued. How does Tuncel propose to rescue it?  In short, staccato bursts of argument--their aphoristic quality reminiscent of Wittgenstein, Pascal, or the Nietzsche of The Twilight of the Idols--Tuncel resuscitates the spectacle. Far from being reliable and absorptive, true spectacle is risky in its hypersensible self-sufficiency, ecstatic (e g. 'standing outside of', not just 'blissful') its existence as pure metaphoricity rather than something which seeks to refer, affirmatively or subversively to something else. Ecstasy represents a kind of lay spirituality, intense yet unmoored, fulfilling yet chaotic. Ecstasy provides the heedlessness that unbinds the spectacle from self-sufficiency. "Spectacle does not represent something outside itself, but is a unique occurrence in time and space" (67). Tuncel is anti- or post-Aristotelian; but not totally so. His 'unity of spectacle' (26) takes its place in the sundry alternate unities that have been employed to widen, but not entirely supplant, Aristotle’s theory of mimesis. But Tuncel does not want us just to stand in awe of the spectacle or murmur genteel or even not-so-genteel effusions about it. (It is this light that he strategically does not discuss the natural sublime, or any form of extra-human or extra-aesthetic spectacle). Getting back to sports, Tuncel reminds us that, in ancient Greece, spectacle and agon has an intimate kinship, as Greek theater and poetry were manifested in competitions, contended for prizes. In a way, today these two strands have been separated: when artists win prizes, it is only about money and cultural capital, there is no art itself in the winning of the prize, as opposed to 'that quantity which wins the prize'. That a spectacle is manifested as part of a competition renders irrelevant the most vexing aspect of the spectacle, its seeming inertness and impenetrability.

Another way Tuncel goes against the grain here is in preconceiving the theory of response to the spectacle, which since Aristotle has been a subject of considerable ambiguity. it is understood, for instance, that catharsis requires an audience to complete it, that it cannot just unfold in a mute artifact without an audience, like Keats' Grecian urn. On the other hand, though, few would want to label Aristotle an audience-response theorist; he is seen above all as a theorist of the work of the art-object as work. Tuncel, though, widens the sphere of effects from the conscious to the unconscious--thus in a way the thinker who can most explain the element of audience response in Aristotle is Freud--or at the very least Nietzsche. Tuncel indicates that a mediating factor between the unconscious and the conscious is what might be called the proprioceptive, an orientation of the spectator to the spectacle in terms of space and place. The theater or arena, Tuncel implies, embody an ideal mediation of these two factors: architectural spectacle, on the other hand, risks careening towards the unipolar, a conscious display of splendor and visibility, that evokes the name Tuncel, in a highly Nietzschean way, sues as his bête noire of bad spectacle throughout—the music of Richard Wagner. In the wake of the debate about the World Trade Center site and the highly visible role of architecture s trope for both mourning and national reassertion, this is a very needed reminder. Tuncel suggests we replace architecture in  our idea of the typical spectacle with the artistic movement—he proffers the example of Surrealism—that, whether or not its actual products operate in the mode of the spectacle (as Tuncel sagely recognizes all art does not), indicate in the public display of the very nature of art the most outstandingly brave aspects of spectacular manifestation.

What I like most about Tuncel's book is how he reminds us of the humility of the ancient Greek dramatists. Even what we might see today as something vaunting and narcissistic--that they competed for prizes--public-spiritedness and humility. Every time I teach Greek drama, my class and I struggle with how these works are so ‘universal’; without cliché, Tuncel comes very close to indicating why and how this is so.

Anthony Powell's From A View to A Death

  My old 1970s paperback finally having worn out, I purchased from Joe Trenn's Bookshed, in Benson, Vermont, a 1960s Heinemann hardcover of Anthony Powell’s From A View to a Death, and have just completed rereading it. Having done so, I see that I missed a lot in my account of the novel in Understanding Anthony Powell. (I think I generally missed a lot about the prewar books there). I stand by my primary point that Powell delights in the fall (literal and figurative) of the opportunist Zouch, but does not simply endorse the resiliency of the old order in the form of a triumphant Vernon Passenger. But what I somehow did not see, although it is clearly stated at the beginning of the book, was that Passenger, like Zouch, is also seen as an Ubermensch. (Interestingly, Nietzsche is never credited with the term, never mentioned in the book—it is just seen as a generally German concept, of which more later). When Passenger catches Major Fosdick in his cross-dressing routine, he does not exact undue revenge on him, and feels some disappointment that he had not lived up to his Ubermensch potential. Does his aristocratic reserve and noblesse oblige prevent him from moving into the kill? Is his grousing to his wife at the end merely a deflective gesture, a refined way of underplaying his success, as a gentleman should? Or is Zouch the true Ubermensch, whose fall we rejoice in as a foiled aspirant to power, whereas Passenger keeps his love of dominance and mastery in more civilized channels? Powell, always fascinated by power and those avid in its pursuit yet keeping a reserved distance from it, lets us judge: but there is no ready moralist, and so simple recouping of an established given.
The ambiguity here is striking; My concern in UAP (somewhat expedited by issues present in the culture in the early 2000s, happily less present in the early 2010s) was to point out that Powell did not want a simple restoration of the Old Regime. He did not want to refight the old battles of the past (seventeenth century England now exists as a pageant where the roles of king, rebel, and courtesan are virtually interchangeable). But, on the other hand modishness comes in for a good deal of rebuke in the book. Characters are roasted for reading John Maynard Keynes and J. B. Priestley, both writers of the Left whom Powell seems to view with scorn. In addition, Powell seems to be sarcastic towards any sort of reconciliation with Germany; as witnessed by Mrs. Fosdick wanting to take in a German boy as an au pair. This of course was often considered the less “Conservative" position in the 1930s. As pointed out in UAP, there is some ambiguity about attitudes towards Chamberlain and Munich in The Kindly Ones, so it is interesting to see this hint of not being satisfied with a “don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” attitude.
Zouch is a fairly conventional portrait painter but he does not show in the Royal Academy because, for his generation, that his not the pathway to power. Zouch is no rebel per se. When Passenger suspects him of being a Communist, the narrative comments that Zouch urgently depended on the capitalist system, to sell, his paintings. Indeed, his desire is to play the role of proud scourge to capitalism who nonetheless profits from it; by seeing vaguely rebellious, he can play the system whole seeing to thumb his nose at it. This kind of inverse attraction also seems to operate with Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger; as it is stated that Zouch has generally not seen himself as attractive to women, having only one rather dowdy long-term girlfriend who is no great catch, it must be this juxtaposition—of the fusty privilege of Passenger Court with the go-getting Zouch—that makes him so effective in this regard in this particular tactical situation. (I always pronounced Zouch to rhyme with Pouch, but at the 2003 Powell conference in Oxford, Patric Dickinson pronounced it to rhyme with louche, something that brings out the seamy appeal of his character all the more).
      But things get more complicated than this, Zouch, like all the protagonists of the prewar novels, is in some way a Powell manqué. He is a young, aspiring artist, going to country houses where his entrée is because of his art—much like, mutatis mutandis, the young Powell himself in his associations with the landed gentry and above. Powell himself said that Zouch’s misadventures on Creditor were based on his own on a horse during a rural chase—of course happily without the fatal results. Powell, of course, was actually a great artist, and his aspirations were ultimately artistic rather than social. But there is a kinship, if even by inversion. It has often been said that the I-narrator of What’s Become of Waring foreshadows the I-narrator of Dance. But, turned backward, the I-narrator also shows how Atwater, Lushington, Zouch, and Blore-Smith are all potential Is, or would be if turned around, having, as Zouch eventually does, their beards taken off (a feature obviously indicated to assure the reader Zouch is not Powell). In Zouch, Powell is writing about just what he is not. But in a writer of genius, writing about what he is not becomes an inevitably rich and complicated gesture.
       Gender and ethnicity are also complicated categories in the book. In UAP, I was at pains not to overtly mention modern critical theories or concerns, because that often seems preposterous with a writer who has not yet been properly read in introductory terms across the whole of his oeuvre (considering the earlier critical books had not ha the chance to look at the Memoirs and Journals). With this now done—not just in UAP but also in Barber’s biography, Christine Berberich’s book on the English gentleman, and in the many fine articles in both the Anthony Powell Society newsletter and the Society’s journal, Secret Harmonies, by such hands as Colin Donald, Jeff Manley, and Peter Kislinger—one can look at issues that would have been thought disproportionate and incongruous before. The cross-dressing of Major Fosdick is obviously meant to be funny, but Powell also saw it was a very key part of the book, being delighted when, in the 1990s, Susan Macartney-Snape’s design for the paperback edition feature the transvestite Fosdick rather than a man on a horse. Fosdick’s cross-dressing is seen as insanity by the society but the narrative itself is more compassionate: when caught in the sequined dress by Passenger and folding it up for what he knows will be the last time, he feels as if a part of himself had ended.   
Major Fosdick in a way is having to live within the constraints of a false self, having to impersonate a hearty rural squire whereas the sequined dress represents aspects of himself that this role cannot accommodate. Similarly, for all Powell satirizes any attempt at high culture—people who read Melville in the same tranche of books as Edgar Wallace, people who think Axel Munthe is highbrow literature—and recognizes how it can be used by opportunists to cozen landed gentry out of their funds (and their daughters), there is a tacit critique of the narrowness of men like Passenger here. When Passenger encounters Fischbein and his wife Hetty, Zouch tells them that they are hikers. “Hikaz’,” says Passenger, as if in an oriental language. Not only does Passenger not understand that the rural scene is being more festooned with urban nature-lovers, but he articulates his bafflement in a sound that sounds foreign.  Powell spelled his astonished pronunciation of the word very like the Arabian region of Hejaz, much in the headlines at the time as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was being formed out of the Arab states that had coalesced in the revolt against Ottoman rule during the First World War. Interestingly, this Semitic reference is paired with the entrance of Fischbein—a character with an obviously Jewish name. As with his portrayal of the Jew, Verelst, in Afternoon Men, Powell is deliberately foiling stereotypes of Jewishness. Some would see any representation of a Jew by a non-Jew in this era as somehow anti-Semitic, but here it is Zouch who exhibits anti-Semitic tendencies, being ashamed of Fischbein both because Fischbein knows him in his pre-aspiring-to-country-gentlemenhood life and because Fischbein’s ethnicity and status as a journalist are not the sort of associates he wants his new friends to see. Yet Fischbein is one of the servers at the end, offering commentary on the slain Zouch, much as the Palliser does on Lizzie Eustace at the end of The Eustace Diamonds, with as much an air of survival-authority as passenger has. The landed squire and the Jew remain on the canvas after the social-climbing opportunist has faded.
       As long as well are discussing ethnic issues, what Major Fosdick reads during the sequined-dress interludes is also apposite—Through the Western Highlands With Rod and Gun. Scottishness is on Powell’s mind here, as he was shortly to write Caledonia. Again, he is writing about what he is not; of English and Welsh descent, Powell sees Scotland as a gently teasable ‘other'. The incongruity of the hyper-macho reading and the sequined dress hits the reader first; but the writer is, in complex ways, giving us his likes and dislikes, his identities and avoidances: putting them on the canvas.
     Speaking of canvases, the women in this book—objects of Zouch’s portraiture—are some of the most attractive female characters in early Powell. For all the bad judgment both Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger show in being interested in Zouch, both ladies are presented very positively. Mary is universally seen, by many neutral observers, as the best in the Passenger family. Joanna is game and lively and is accorded the books one happy ending, in her engagement to Jasper Fosdick. This marriage makes clear, --despite the Major’s commitment to a rest cure and the breaking of Torquil Fosdick’s relationship with Betty Passenger,--that the Fosdick family are not being punished by the narrative of the crime of simply being slightly less well off and/or prestigious as the passengers. Though we do not admire Zouch’s pursuit of the two ladies, his two-timing of Joanna, and his gravitating towards Mary simply because her family has more money and prestige, we understand what the women see in Zouch: an escape from the stultification of rural life, an expression of individuality, a chance to live a more creative and inspired life than their mothers. Powell’s ability to make us admire these female characters even as we despise the man who unaccountably interests them is one of his most subtle and winning touches in what, for all its satire and all the shock of Zouch's death, is so often a very lyrical and moving novel.
     The youngest female character in the book should not be scanted. Betty Passenger’s daughter Bianca—the product of her ill-fated marriage with an Italian aristocrat—provides an air of impish irreverence throughout the book. Powell rarely depicts children, but in Bianca he engagingly depicts a precocious yet sometimes irritating child whose truth-telling is sometimes tinged with malice, as when she tells Zouch that, of all her family, only Mary likes him. She has both the insouciance and menace, though in a more minor key, of the young Pamela Flitton depicted in A Buyer’s Market, who similarly is the first instance in that narrative of generation definably younger than that of the novel’s point of view. The final action of the novel—Bianca’s defacing of Zouch’s portrait of Mary with a moustache—is a pleasingly farcical and deflationary ending to an often farcical and deflationary book. But not only, in its mixture of gender signifiers, is it reminiscent of Fosdick’s cross-dressing, but it also defaces a portrait that represents the book’s most admirable aspirations. Zouch, in reality had little real regard for Mary other than as a target of opportunity, but how Mary saw herself in Zouch's vision of her was something laudable and, for her, empowering, and her niece’s description of the portrait indicates that, whatever happens in the future, her family will not provide the succor and encouragement she needs
       All this in a short pithy novel with lots of dialogue! So many missed chances, chance catastrophes, rogue animalities, calculating rogues. There is so much more--the linear inevitability of the title, taken from John Woodcock Graves '1820 Cumberland Hunting Song (do ye ken John Peel?), the open question as to whether Passenger actually planned Zouch's accident with Creditor, the fact that this is Powell's sole novel to deal primarily with country life. Powell’s prewar fiction is deceptively slight, easily able to fake out the reader with its slightness, as I confess it semi-faked me out when I wrote my book on Powell. For more on my reconsideration of non-Dance Powell, you will have to come to my lecture on March 17, 2012, at St James’ Piccadilly in London, sponsored by the Anthony Powell Society, starting at 1:45 in the afternoon. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rafael Correa at New School

The appearance at my university today of Ecuadrian President Rafael Correa was great theatre...he gave a 40 minute speech on the Yasuní-ITT park, a  product of Ecuador's foregoing oil attracting in order to protect biodiversity....of course Correa said  how noble it was for Ecuador to forego  oil revenues, although he criticized people for criticizing his asking for compensation....Correa was assured, likable, charismatic (in a good sense, not in a bufofonish or malevolent sense). He gave a somewhat Clintonesque series of statistics about the flora and fauna in the park and claimed he was one of the few doing anything about global warming--which in light of the struggles of the current US and Australian admins in this regard was fairly stated. The real fireworks came afterwards when an elderly man stood up, let forth a stream of Spanish I could not get (I had foregone the translation device, but  generally understood Correa, even though he pronounced 'desarrollo" as 'desarrojjo" and Ollanta as "Ojjanta". indeed Correa, who got his PhD at Illinois, clearly had mastered the art of speaking Spanish to Anglophones) but then added a short rider in English that 'this is all choreographed"; he was escorted from the room, Another (i assume) Ecuadorian, either of Asian descent or nearly full blooded indigenous, stood up and asked about the freedom of the press, and Correa said he was for freedom of the press, was only protecting the press from capitalism. (Fox News and Obama is a crude, though not all that accurate comparison). A ruckus ensued and sever la people shouted out questions, Correa said he was sick of the topic and that people did not care about his "lucha contra calentamiento global' a phrase he repeated sever la times..,finally he said that it was the sort of pres she got that led Allende to be overthrow by Pinochet--there Correa got the crowd on his side.

He referred to the indigenous people in the park (Guarani, who he asked his audience to name, and several others)  as 'hermanos'; in English that would sound patronizing. He made no reference to his real brother, Fabricio, who has threatened to challenge him for the Presidency next year.

He struck me, both rhetorically and substantively, as one half Bill Cointon, another half somebody like Keith Olbermann, in that once his assurance broke down he seemed vulnerable and angry, resuming with difficulty the Clintonesque sheen.

As Correa, his entourage-including several members of the Ecuadorian cabinet. the Ecuadorian UN ambassador,  and also representatives from friendly countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina-left, it began to rain fiercely outside and there was a certain amount of panic to get him into the limo--odd I thought for the leader of a tropical country, they kind of acted like Saudi Arabians who had never seen rain.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fulya Peker's THE PLAGUE

 When I attended the opening performance of Fulya Peker's Plague on September 16, the theater opened slightly late; finally, the announcement was made that we were free to go in. To do so, though, one had to step over a prone figure on the ground, a bald man caked in mud, a kind of combination of hobo and primordial Adam. This not only burst the bounds of the proscenium but also indicated the way this performance would present not just a spectacle but an anthropology. Instead of merely watching humans 'act’, we were to be confronted anew with speculations on the very nature of humanity. The actor eventually entered the stage and assumed a contemplative pose, now seeming more Bodhisattva than bum.

As I ascended the stairs to my chosen, slightly peripherally located seat, I stepped over what I thought was a bulky brown rug spreading out from the stage to the audience stalls. I stepped over it rather authoritatively, in a way that if I had missed a step would have clamped down on the ‘rug’ rather hard. After a point, I realized that in fact the bulkiness of the rug was caused by there being a human being inside it! I had almost crushed one of the actors! Again, more important than the standard Brechtian alienation effect is the total lack of distinction between the substance of the piece and its articulation. This might seem too comfortably organic were it not for the overriding metaphor of the plague. The very phrase “communicable disease” suggests how plagues can carry information that is also destruction, that their ability to penetrate past barriers means that the sort of structural interchangeability betoken here is not just a lark or a passport to beatific infinitude.

The action of the piece took place against the background of a central raised panel covered by a fluted black curtain. In the back of this to the right was a series of small white river rocks strewn on the ground. The elemental colors of black and white provided a stark tableau; they provided, though, less a foundation for the work than a grammar of it, in the same way that the precise and immediate verbal relationships of the vowels and consonants in the words were mirrored by the gestures of the actors. A robed figure in black (assuming a white robe by the end of the play) stood in the middle, speaking most of the language of the play and speaking as its raisonneur. He was flanked most impressively by two black-clothed caryatid-like figures who maintained an architectural poise for nearly an hour. In back, rustling, implication-filled tympani is heard as, from stage center left, a relentless pilot light bores into the audience, signifying, perhaps, the dualities, the ambiguities, of enlightenment.     

One of the astonishing aspects of The Plague was how elastic the four male actors managed to make their bodies, seeming stoic at times, invulnerable at others, sometimes seeming very virile, sometimes more gender-indeterminate, sometimes vigorously tall, sometimes prone on the ground. They could seem Neanderthals at one moment, robots the next, living, breathing contemporaries at another instance. Again the sense of the anthropological seen at the very beginning returned, as body and utterance were both being examined for a kind of bedrock, core humanity, about which yet no cripplingly essentialist assumptions were being made. The sense of body as, again, not just base about mediation fortified the sense of permeation that the piece’s ruling metaphors, plague and the verbal interstices of languages, very much paraded.

Using very simple words—including many monosyllables—constrained by the need to have rhyme and assonance in as much of the enunciated language as possible, The Plaguenonetheless makes a concerted historiographic argument. Most take it is a mere coincidence that the Black Death occurred near the end of the Middle Ages as commonly conceived, that e.g., the quintessentially medieval Dante wrote before it, the quintessentially Renaissance Boccaccio wrote largely after it (and, famously of it). Peker argues here that the plague never totally ended, that its external aspects came to an end but not its internal. (This of course is relevant to the nature of event in general; how can one observe the anniversary of 9/11 if the events of 9/11 have in some way not stopped happening?) Even after the physical disease had vanished, the plague of reason remained, internalized, manifested in Cartesian dualism and in the reign of unthinking rationality. “The most terrible plague is one that does not reveal its symptoms.” Modernity has been trapped by a plague endemic to its very conception. Of course, Peker is saying no more than many modern critics of modernity such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Adorno; but to dramatize it so intricately, so implicitly, and so considering the nature of her argumentnon-argumentatively is not only a considerable feat but a moving one. Peker's thesis could be potentially stentorian or monolithic, but her dramatic rendition of it forestalls these declensions, having established a past (the literal plague) and a present (a metaphorical plague of reason) Peker then looks to the future. One of the great assets of Peker's work is that it utterly lacks the curdled irony, cloying self-awareness, and naïve cynicism so often found in contemporary New York performance. Jettisoning the post-collegiate smugness of much of the predominant consensus, Peker is after a more serious art and is not afraid to flaunt artistic determination that, in its dignity and fierce ardor, will cause envy and resentment in the cynical. (In this light, the setting in the Theater for the New City reminded me of the work of the late Jeanette Arnone-K, whose paintings and murals, often exhibited there, in their bravest moments challenged an otherwise regnant bourgeois consensus in the urgency with which they registered ecological peril). Peker points out the sterility of reason, how what we think has been deliverance is in fact disease, what we think salvific is in fact morbific. Yet Peker is not writing from a sense of medievalist lament, a Henry Adams-like sense that the Virgin was superior to the Dynamo; she also avoids any kind of hortatory suggestion of a revolution in life, whether through political or sexual revitalization—vulgar-Marxist, vulgar-Freudian, and vulgar-Nietzsche. Her high seriousness and her use of innovative techniques to render issues of artistic gravity hearken back to modernism, but Peker is too postmodern to proffer any kind of positive agenda. Or is she not? It struck me towards the end that The Plague was proposing a solution, and that was through its own medium—of theatricality, and more importantly of language.

Peker has worked a lot with Richard Foreman of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, and the enigmatic lyricism of The Plague was reminiscent of Foreman, as was the rigor and discipline to which the actors had so creatively submitted themselves. Foreman, at least in his work of the past twenty years, seems to want to deliberately foil any pattern in his plays, particularly any overall import to the utterances and ejaculations made by the actors in the course of their performances. Peker, on the other hand, renders a kind of tone poem, playing on inherent resemblances in language like that between “once” and “was”, on the (to use a word sounded in the piece) “tectonic” possibilities of language. Yet the sword is double-edged. The play’s text uses rhyme, yet the introduction of rhyme into European languages was the play hints, part of our falling into verbal imprisonment. The play celebrates the resources of language in its own right, “words alone” as Yeats famously put it. And yet language is “the problem”, verbs wriggling free from their moorings in nouns create sterile puzzlement; the same elemental language whose bare resources are so pleasing in their enunciation here also holds us in thrall. Peker, originally from Turkey, is not a native speaker of English, and this pertains to The Plague both because it makes her experiments with language not just playful but philological, in the manner of an Auerbach or a Spitzer (who famously went the other way with respect to Turkey), or ascetic, in the manner of a Beckett, and because not being a native speaker robs Peker of a base which for a native speaker might make such an elemental iteration a safe harbor, a reassurance. Peker can seek or find no reassurance in the fundamentals; rather, for her, they illuminate the hope and peril of the very condition of our understanding.

In the program notes, Peker adduced high-modernist precursors such as Artaud and Grotowski; and, again, it is refreshing, considering the narcissistic snickering that so often assumes the stage in New York today, that these great artists are being taken seriously, yet, watching The Plague, I thought less of these European precursors than Ralph Waldo Emerson—the Emerson who said, in “Nature,”

Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same. A rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature. So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of nature, and betrays its source in Universal Spirit. For, it pervades Thought also. Every universal truth that we express in words implies or supposes every other truth.

Peker, in linking the articulation of language and the movement of performers so intimately, in sounding the innards of a tongue she also thinks holds us in chains, is faithful to the intricacy and brutal duality of Emerson’s conception. As I exited the theater—unobstructed this time by prone bodies or human rugs—I felt a pervasive sense of possibility and excitement. This was not because I had been temporarily infused with sophomoric naïveté. As Peker and Emerson instruct us, all our truths and pains are intimately bound, and we can only hope to think outside of them if we understand how thoroughly and delicately we are sutured. Peker's elegant, forceful, and stunning play offers, in its stark, austere tableau, a glimpse of how this might be attempted.