Rimbaud Dreams of War

Jean Artur Rimbaud wrote strange prose-poems in the Belle Epoque. He was an exceedingly odd duck: not ostentatiously wierd like Van Gogh, but the sort of man who could drop everything and spend his final years as an arms-dealer in North Africa. He’s kind of like William Burroughs, except his stuff is short enough so that I can digest it in one go, rather than get tired of not understanding anything and chuck the book a the wall (how many times have I tried to read Nova Express? At least three. How many times have I got farther than 20 pages? I do not know).

I find his strangeness appealing perhaps because he is not dogmatic about it. Poetry works best when it is a process of discovery, of the writer overhearing himself. There’s a tradition as old as Pindar to the effect that poets are prophets; speaking truths they themselves dimly understand, throwing words together in a disciplined kind of way because it feels right. A purely right-brained approach.

Now, no artist actually works this way. The stuff gets edited. It is shaped. It is messed with. This is itself part of the process, so that you leave your own interpolations at the door and get to the Real Thing. How do you know you have the Real Thing? If you have to ask, you don’t have it.

So here’s War, part of the Illuminations collection:

When a child, certain skies sharpened my vision: all their characters were reflected in my face. The Phenomena were roused.–At Present, the eternal inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics drives me through this world where I meet with every civil honor, respected by strange children and prodigious affections.–I dream of a War of right and of might, of unlooked-for logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

Jean Artur Rimbaud, “war” The Illuminations, pg. 133

That’s it. The whole Madness. It is not analytical. It is not concerned with understanding, only with experiencing. It is an irruption of Id-sense, Id-longing. Might be the phenomenon Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception: certain folk have a spiritual sensitivity that can lead either to Enlightenment or Insanity. In times past the old boy might have become a monk or mystic and offered prayer-poems to whatever Deity would have him. Perhaps a martyr or a passionate heretic, if the cards played out right. Instead he became a pieta to the more erudite segment of nerds.

Still, there’s something to the economy of expression, something I’ve written on before and probably will again, as it’s never been something I could master. My sentences flow like rivers, like dams breaking. And so do some of his. But he doesn’t have eighty of them together. I am the more concerned, it seems, with not being misunderstood.

Books Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad

Recently I went on a quick camping trip and happened to take along my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It included some selections from Conrad’s “Congo Diary”, a record he kept of his 1890 journey into the Belgian Congo, events of which clearly informed the subsequent story. This made for an immersive diversion as I watched a soft rain fall on my tiny cabin.

A book as intense as Heart of Darkness, written about so vivid a topic as Colonialism, as it was happening, is bound to provoke an active critical response. So to pad out my paperback volume’s slim 100 pages, we are treated to a series of critical takes on the book, ranging from H.L. Mencken to Virginia Wolff. But the most significant is that of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which in many ways provides a mirror and counterpoint to the earlier work.

Achebe’s critique stipulates the book’s virtues and then cuts right to heart, as it were, of darkness: the book exists as a horror story for the European mind, an encounter with Dark Africa, who in her primordial sublimity, shreds the European man’s faith in Progress, and in Himself, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The Black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “the thought of their humanity–like yours… Ugly.”

The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected.

From “An Image of Africa”, Massachusetts Review, 1977

I have no intention whatever of refuting Achebe’s point. To expect a European, observing Africa in its colonized state, in 1890, to come away without the revulsion that is Heart of Darkness‘ central theme, is to expect a thing that never happened. 1890 was the era in which common tribalism had been ballooned by “Science” into the Biological Racism that reached its thunderhead in the Second World War. The Races, as such, were in closer contact than ever before, and had very little understanding of each other. The fact that Conrad savages the European characters in the story for their pirate morality is beside the point. He does not want to see Africans as humans, even as he cannot help it. He reduces them all to cannibals on the riverside.

But as it happens, I have also read Things Fall Apart. Moreover, like many books I was assigned in High School, it made an impression on me. I enjoyed the story’s arc. I enjoyed the anti-heroic protagonist. I savored his rise and his hubristic peripetaia. And then the end happened, and I put the book down feeling rather suckered. I found it anti-climactic and frustrating. In retrospect, I was perhaps unable at that age to appreciate that kind of an ending. But underneath that, is the way the historical/racial aspect of the story interrupted the narrative arc I was expecting in the first part.

This is of course, the point of the story. The reader is introduced to a vibrant and complex clan culture, that of the Igbo, that’s survived for untold years. We see a protagonist struggle within the context of that culture, but also as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating as a human tale.

And then, the book tells us, the White People Show Up, and every part of this is destroyed and/or adulterated. It is a cultural collapse both deliberate – the missionaries fully intended to change the Africans’ culture – and unintended, as not understanding the culture, they could not foresee how the Igbo would react. That some of the whites – such as Mr. Brown – have benevolent intentions is irrelevant. They are the destroyers of the world we’re now invested in. Others, such as the District Commissioner, do not even have names, and function less as characters than as events, irruptions of Whiteness.

One doesn’t have to excoriate Achebe to draw the obvious parallels. Europeans in Things Fall Apart are reductions of their race in the same way that Africans in Heart of Darkness are. It is a mirror, reflecting the same encounter from the other side (albiet in British Nigeria rather than Belgian Congo). And just as I do not expect Conrad to see Africans as anything but Other, I cannot but expect Achebe to see Europeans the same way. The reality of the encounter demands it, even as it frustrates our grander moral principles. Humans have tribal instincts that are tied to our social dynamic. Conformity within that social dynamic creates cohesion and expectation. So any violation of that conformity in one sense feels wrong. As the Africans on the riverside don’t fit Marlowe’s conception of what a man should be, neither do the Europeans to Okonkwo.

It’s important to recognize this, because if we refuse to do so, we allow our sense of Other to permit actions that our moral sense would otherwise have found repulsive. 19th-Century Europeans regarded Africans as sufficiently human to expend time and treasure to shut down the African slave trade. But despite that moral discovery, other economic exploitations, and concomitant cruelties, were allowed to go on. Africans were still Other enough that their lands, their religions, their traditions, etc. were regarded with contempt.

But that was 1890. The modern age pretends to have transcended this dynamic, but they’ve simply reversed the polarity on it. European civilization has gone from being The Best and Most Natural Standard of Good, to the Foulest and Most Horrid Excrescence of Wickedness. That the second fails under examination as clearly as the first did does not deter those who speak it. Anger and revulsion at the darkness in the human heart wheresoever it be found will usually find a scapegoat. Others gonna Other.

For that reason, I favor reading both these books, as both examples and examinations of the problem we have communicating across groups. Human nature might never permit us to transcend the problem, but forearmed, we might pull back some from the Horror.

On Aesthetics

I was inspired by my earlier post to think about aesthetics – the philosophy of art, beauty, etc.  And I did a brief perusal of the related article on the topic on Infogalactic and discovered something:

  • In ancient and medieval world, specific things were called out as being beautiful: order, form, harmony, unity, etc. This was a means of defining beauty.
  • Starting in the Early Modern period (17th-19th centuries), the conversation changed to be about “aesthetic experiences”, wedding aesthetics to rationality and science.
  • Then in the 20th century, two things happen:
    • First, we throw away the artist/author because of the “intentional fallacy”, and center our understanding of a work solely on our individuated responses to it.
    • Second, the Po-Mo’s throw away the idea of beauty itself, and everything becomes about discourses and narratives to be endlessly invoked and endlessly deconstructed

So we move from a set of idea that are clear, evocative, and can be used by a mason to build a temple, to a set of ideas that are esoteric, tendentious, and can only be used by academics to write essays. The nerds have taken over.

“Art is Useless. Go home.”

A “One-Woman Fyre Festival”

That may be unfair. Caroline Calloway isn’t the first person who couldn’t make a book deadline. But the disconnect between reality and InstaReality is as vast:

Caroline Calloway knew she was not who she had made the world believe she was. She had created a public image that was essentially false and, when she was required to commit this image to print — to tell her life story — she experienced an existential crisis. It was one thing to post a photo to Instagram with a clever caption (and editorial assistance from her uncredited helper Natalie), but to compile these scattered vignettes into a narrative and say, “This is my life”? No, she couldn’t do it.

And as the Brutus of her story, Natalie Beach, indicates, there’s a semblance of honesty in there, an insistence that if you just believe hard enough, it will happen. You see the same in Billy McFarland’s pathetic stance on top of a picnic table at Fyre, trying to calm a mob of hopeful glampers just beginning to realize they got hosed.

The worst scammers are those that believe their own bullshit. If Calloway had just let Beach ghostwrite the book, she’d be full of it, but there would have at least been a book. If McFarland had limited his expectations, their at least could have been a party on whatever island that was.

But their minds were warped by saturated images and SEO data. They got high on their own supply.

It’s not at all easy to write a book. I’ve done it. It’s grinding. It’s work. It’s not glamour and bon mots and artisanal pork bellies. There’s a reason writers drink.

One of the best free books about creating, Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, reminds us that the struggle of delivering the work, or “shipping”

When we ship, we’re exposed. That’s why were so afraid of it. When we ship, we’ll be judged. The real world will pronoubnce upon our work and upon us, when we ship, we can fail, when we ship, we can be humiliated.

For some, an insurmountable bar to clear.

Originality is not Art.

All aesthetic positions are going to offend someone, because concepts of the beautiful are perpetually wrapped up in concepts of the true, and that makes sense in poets’ vomitings but not as an ontological baseline. Whether the beautiful and the true are connected in some way doesn’t really help us to define the beautiful.

The philosophy of aesthetics suffer in a different way from the post-modern inversion. A long time ago Edmund Burke took a shot at defining The Beautiful and The Sublime, and it’s so 18th century you could powder your wig with it. Make an art student read it today and she won’t be able to get past it. Feminism owns the dialogue on what’s considered beautiful, because women have historically been far more concerned with beauty, and all women today feel obligated to at least nod to feminism lest they be accused of harboring the desire to surrender their franchise or some such nonsense. And Feminists regard beauty as a conspiracy against women, because… reasons.

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

So aesthetics has to appeal to presuppositions about what people like. If you like horror and your wife doesn’t, then no objective statement about the aesthetic value of say, The Shining, is going to be possible between you. She might agree that, on the whole, The Shining is a better movie that Bye Bye Man, but she doesn’t enjoy either, so she doesn’t care.

Where am I going with this?

I’m aiming at the reality that art of any form needs to be some kind of communication. There has to be something that The Shining is communicating, even if it’s something as simple as dread, mystery, and heart palpitations. So the first judgement of a piece of art is how well in accomplishes its intent (here the po-mo’s shriek that intent isn’t real and there aren’t any authors, because po-mo’s are nerds who think inverting things is valuable and clever). What does it want to convey to its audience? Did it do so successfully?

The second judgement would be the relative value of its intent. This must be judged on a gradient. What Animal House communicates and what Citizen Kane communicates are vastly different, and what the latter communicates is grander in scope, so it gets taken more seriously. That doesn’t mean Animal House has no aesthetic value, or that you shouldn’t watch it (I’m not bringing in any moral objections here. That’s beyond the scope), just that it’s ambitions are obviously more modest.

But in order to say something succesfully, you must find an audience that can hear it. I may have a very clear idea of what I mean when I say “wickle-bickle-num-bum-jarf-jarf-jarf,” but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, so I’m failing in communication. So originality isn’t always a bonus to art. You want to be unique, because you want to be heard as you, but originality gets in the way of communication as often as not. If Citizen Kane were a shade weirder, it would not have worked as well, and it would not be as successful a piece of art, by any standard.

Art can be original. They’re not synonyms.

Gilgamesh is Fascinating.

Short, as epics go. And one certainly feels something got lost in translation. But there’s a marvelous universality to it at the same time, and a quaint reflection of a world more enchanted and more innocent. And the way it ends bespeaks a kind of tragedy-of-time, a luminous lamentation, that reminds me of Beowulf.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, but I’m glad I did.

Word of the Day: Benignant

1. kind, especially to inferiors; gracious: a benignant sovereign.
2. exerting a good influence; beneficial: the benignant authority of the new president.
3. Pathology. benign.
Definition: Dictionary.com
Where I found it: The Orphic Hymn to Ares
To lovely Venus [Kypris], and to Bacchus [Lyaios] yield, to Ceres [Deo] give the weapons of the field;
Encourage peace, to gentle works inclin’d, and give abundance, with benignant mind.

Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Problem with Film Critics

The Sunrise Motel makes note of the same Film School Rejects article that I did, and pulls a good description of the puritanical urge to sieve any piece of art for wrongthink, “hermeneutics of suspicion”. I might go a step farther than this, and say that a great deal of criticism is done not for the sake of art, but simply to create barriers to enjoyment, that one may status-signal.

If you enjoy the same sort of thing that the masses do, and in the same way, then you aren’t a critic, you’re a press agent. It’s thus in the best interest of the critic to find reasons to find fault with things. A Hermeneutics of Suspicion will do as much as any other.

No doubt a certain degree of Exposure Effect is involved. If you watch movies for a living, you become inured to the common storytelling tropes and they cease to surprise you or have any effect on you whatsoever. So your experience of film, hoping against hope to be surprised, is vastly different from the average film patron, who is expecting merely an entertaining story for a few hours. The tendency to embrace absurdism and aesthetic extremes for their ability tweak the tropes is thus explained.

In other words, criticism has a problem.