Tag Archives: Augustine

The Devil’s Party

My continuing devotion to The New York Review of Books probably signifies nothing so much as my being an archaic throwback, born out of sync with my time. In a way, it seems to me that NYRB has become countercultural in part simply by just staying the same. The world has passed it by–who has time, after all, for a thought that requires an argument?–but in so doing I wonder whether we won’t long at last for just its kind of sober and articulate seriousness that tries to comprehend our troubles, tiring finally of the jokey popculturism of the web that seems mostly content to glide glibly along our surfaces, troubles merely another occasion for self display.

NYRB seems to revel in this archaic status, reprinting as it does forgotten masterpieces through its press and classic articles for it’s archives, apparently insisting pugnaciously that literature and thought really do remain news against the ephemera of what passes for the hot things of the moment.

Of course, it does this on the web now too, like everyone else. Most recently I picked up “A Modern Master by Paul de Man”  off the Facebook page that I have “liked.” A good “classic” essay on Borges, though as with a lot of deconstructionists it becomes impossible to know whether I am supposed to appreciate what de Man is saying or the prolix way in which he goes about saying it. And, of course, it’s sometimes hard to know with these guys whether I’m learning something about Borges or about Paul de Man reading Borges. De Man is primarily interested in the thesis that villainy becomes in some sense a poetic and aesthetic principle for Borges, one that he explores and unfolds throughout his career.

It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.

A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.

So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.

The line “the poet is of the devil’s party” stood out to me, even though de Man’s “All of us know” sets it up sniffily as a throwaway line that demarcates the star-bellied sneeches from their know-nothing cousins. In part I think I seized on this line because it suddenly struck me that it really is the case that everyone I’ve know has mostly assumed that poet’s were of the devil’s party. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a very long time, maybe for as long as I’ve engaged literature. As I wrote in my book, encountering literature has been, for me, always been fraught with the question of whether or not I was encountering the devil’s party in some metaphorical sense or another. From the time my parents forbid me to go to see The Great Gatsby with friends, or the year I was not allowed to read The Catcher in the Rye along with all my classmates. In some longer range and more significant way, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s restriction of the poet from the Republic in the belief that poets served merely to inflame the passions, the devil’s party for the rationalist Greek. In my literary theory and other classes, I’ve often invoked the authority of Augustine’s notion of the felix peccatum, the happy fall, to suggest the notion that literature depends on the fact of fallenness, the fact of evil. If the poet is not of the devil’s party, he is at least secretly glad–along with all his readers–that the devil had his way if only for a moment.

An unsettling notion, that our pleasures, even our highest intellectual and aesthetic pleasures depend in some deep sense upon our and the world’s brokenness and violence. At the deepest level, I think this speaks to something unsettling about literature and art in general, something that goes beyond the question of offensiveness, and may go deeper than PLato’s concerns with the surface manifestations of inflamed aesthetic passions. Literature–perhaps other arts, but literature especially–unsettles because it depends so thoroughly and obviously and completely on brokenness and struggle and conflict and, yes, sometimes, violence as a condition of its existence. And it is most unsettling in that it makes takes these and makes them pleasurable, moving, beautiful. I think this is unsettling not on the simple level that we feel moralistically that literature shouldn’t do this, but the fact that it does do this has the force of revelation, showing us something about how we are built to experience the world. We exclude the poet from the city walls because by her fictions she shows us the fictions of our virtues.

As tiresome as I often find the deconstructionists–the tendency to find an infinity in a phrase often being nothing more than making a mountain our of a molehill–it still seems to me that this conundrum is something they troubled over endlessly and rightly.

Satyagraha: Goodness and Stasis

In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Philip Glass’s new opera, Satyagraha, raises a number of interesting issues about the relationships between language and narrative and ethics. Of course, I no doubt think they are particularly good because I’veGhandi and MLK in Glass\'s Satyagraha puzzled over them before. Also a few of you know that my Batman alter-ego is an operatic tenor (No, seriously. You laugh? Why does everyone laugh? What, pray tell, is laughable about an English professor who sings opera? And not in the shower. When I was a kid I told my Dad I was going to be President of the United States and play pro basketball at night. Now my dream life is to be a college professor by day and a member of Met chorus–at least my fantasies are vaguely realistic–by the light of the full moon. Hint, that’s not me in the photo).

Anyway, back to Mendelsohn:

Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a “binding up”) out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or “undoing”)—a concept that survives in our term “dénouement.”

There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That “doing” gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: “drama” comes from the Greek drân, “to do” or “to act.” When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.

I’ve pointed out to my students that for those of us who love literature, Augustine’s felix culpa/felix peccatum is the only possible game in town. Without sin there is no story, there is no conflict, there is no drama–of redemption or anything else.

Apparently Tolkien thought something similar. According to Verlyn Flieger in her (his?) book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World.

“Tolkien felt that the Separation, the Fall, was tragic and that the splintering of light and language were the result of the Fall. But he surely felt, too, with Augustine, the possibilities for beauty that derived from the felix peccatum Adae, the fortunate sin of Adam. Given light and language, it is our right to ‘make still by that law in which we’re made’ and by making to ‘assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.’ He felt just as surely also with Barfield that in the hands of th epoets, the makers, the ‘disease of mythology’ called language will be the instrument whereby sub-creation will finally reunite humanity with the Maker.

Well, I don’t know about all of this, but a lot of it I love. One might say that our imperfection is the condition of our creativity. Death is the Mother of all beauty, as Stevens says and I’ve noted.

And thus, as Philip Glass’s opera apparently explores in evoking the life of Mahatma Ghandi, the very difficult process of trying to create narrative art about virtue. The Romantics complained that Milton’s God is not only autocratic and oppressive of individual initiative, he’s much worse than that from the artists point of view. He’s boring. The evil man flailing against the imperturbable stone face of goodness at leastWilliam Blake\'s Satan arousing the fallen angels gives us something to hang our aesthetic hat on. Or at least the imperturbable stone face of something. Think Ahab and Moby Dick. Milton himself tried his hand at dramatizing goodness in Paradise Regained, showing that the essence of Jesus righteousness in the desert–indeed the root of his triumph over evil–is that he avoids doing anything in the face of temptation. Not so far from the traditional Christian vision of redemptive suffering which triumphs over evil not by striking it down, but by taking it upon oneself. This idea leads to the theological disputes as to whether the Christian God is impassive. If he can be moved to change–by suffering or by desire–can he be God.

Mendelsohn makes the case that Glass dramatizes Ghandi’s goodness through a kind of meditative stasis, the use of tonal repetitions mimicking the practices of meditation in a way that transcends time–a kind of act, even a kind of drama, overcoming time, but one that can’t be represented narratively. In this view of things, the essence of goodness is achronic, in time but not of it, perhaps (You can hear some clips at amazon.com here). As Mendelsohn puts it,

If, indeed, what Satyagraha aims at, in both its text and its music, is a kind of meditative state of spiritual elevation that allows us to think clearly about Gandhi’s goodness and its effects rather than to get wrapped up in his “drama,” the use of these incantatory texts only enhances our sense that we’re participating in a kind of exalting ritual, rather than spending a couple of hours at the theatre. Many New Yorkers I know, opera lovers, balked at the idea of “sitting through four hours of Sanskrit”; but those same people would happpily sit through a Te Deum (or bar mitzvah) while understanding little of the text. It’s when you see Satyagraha as a symbolic action that you can begin to appreciate it.

Side note: for some time I’ve been mulling over the idea that the experience of opera–singing as well as listening–is not unlike the experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues found in pentecostal churches. Understanding, in any traditional sense, is not entirely the point since God could just as well speak to us in words we do understand. So why the idea that we need a language that is other. Somehow it is the experience of language that does not mean for us that is at the center of this experience. Similarly, I think people who think opera would be more popular if they understood the language are only half correct. There is something about the fact of words that one does not experience as words but as sounds that have the shape of words that lends opera its transcendent moment for listener and singer alike.

One of my colleagues has objected vehemently to the idea that evil is necessary to literature and has insisted on the importance of lyric poetry as a means of representing it. This well could be, though I think the choice is itself interesting. Lyric is literature out of time and, to my mind, essentially non-dramatic, again like glossolalia. Almost, again, as if goodness can only be imagined and experienced in a world other than the narrative world of longing and loss that we live in.