Overweening Generalist

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 4

I mentioned Finnegans Wake ("FW" to Wakeans) in my last electro-broadside. There seems a very real sense in which Joyce and his High Modernist pals were engaging in writing that was so tricky, so puzzling, so absurdly-densely allusive, that their texts, by their very forms, experimentations and demands upon the reader, are a counter to the practice of Law. (Vico seems to hover over all this, too, but I refuse to digress any more than I already have here; NB I haven't even finished this first paragraph, Jeez! Oh wait...)

When you're a lawyer and, say, you get to argue before the Supreme Court, and a decision comes down, you have "made law," according to lawyer-speak. Poets and Bards of all stripe have spoken of Eleutherarchy: the making of freedom, or another reality.

In his 1976 book Investigative Poetry the poet Ed Sanders argued for poets reclaiming the writing of history. As an earlier example Sanders cites Ezra Pound's wild collage method, which was heavily influenced by Ernest Fenollosa's notebooks on Chinese writing and how it could act as a medium for poetry: the notorious ideogrammic method. "Purest Distillations from the Data-Midden: the essence of Investigative Poetry: Lines of lyric beauty descend from the data clusters. [...] The Cantos of Ezra Pound first gave us melodic blizzards of data-fragments. History as slime-sift for morality [...] And Pound was a skilled collagist: the lesson is this: that an Investigative Poet of any worth at all will have to become as skilled a collagist as the early Braque." (Investigative Poetry, pp.9-10)

                                                   Ezra Pound, not locked in a cage.

Modernist Investigative Poets Are Suspects (By Definition?)
I will have more to say on "by definition" when I address one James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, but suffice for now, this story about Pound. He was arrested by American military men in Italy, near the end of what is popularly called World War II. He was wanted because he he'd made broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini; the story of why quickly becomes intricate, but if the Reader is interested I strongly urge an investigation of why Pound did it. He made all kinds of broadcasts, and they are noted for an abhorrent and marked antisemitism. But he was also trying, in his own deranged way, to save the idea of Jeffersonian democracy in Unistat. I see no reason to disbelieve Mad 'Ol Ez's earnestness. The Allies suspected these radio broadcasts were of a treasonous nature. Pound was caught and kept at the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa, in a cage fit for a large wild cat at a zoo, open to the sky. He wrote poetry while being held there, and seems to have had a nervous breakdown. The poems he wrote while caged are now referred to as The Pisan Cantos, and they later won the Bollingen Prize, something between a Pulitzer and a Nobel for poetry.

These poems passed through the hands of the censor at the DTS. He became very concerned. They were suspect due to overwhelming difficulty: they might be written in a secret code to some Axis spies! Pound was told of these suspicions and answered in a letter, trying to reassure the censor that he wasn't apt to pull a fast one:

The Cantos contain nothing in the nature of cipher or intended obscurity. The present Cantos do, naturally, contain a number of allusions and recalls, to matter in the earlier 71 cantos already published, and many of these cannot be made clear to readers unacquainted with the earlier parts of the poem. 
   There is also extreme condensation in the quotations, for example "Mine eyes have" (given as "mi-hine eyes hev") refers to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as heard from the loud speaker. 
   There is not time or place in the narrative to give the further remarks on seeing the glory of the lord.
   In like manner citations from Homer or Sophokles or Confucius are brief, and serve to remind the ready reader that we were not born yesterday.
   The Chinese ideograms are mainly translated, or commented in the English text. At any rate they contain nothing seditious.
   The form of the poem and main progress in conditioned by its own inner shape, but the life of the D.T.C. passing OUTSIDE the scheme cannot but impinge, or break into the main flow. The proper names given are mostly those of men on sick call seen passing my tent. A very brief allusion to further study of names, that is, I am interested to note the prevalence of early american names, either of whites of the old tradition (most of the early presidents for example) or of descendants of slaves who took the names of their masters. Interesting in contrast to the relative scarcity of melting-pot names. 
-written in 1945, first published in The Paris Review, vol. 7 no. 28 (Summer-Fall 1962)

The road to Eleutherarchy can prove a tough one to hoe.

Internal Immigration: A Brief Note
In meditating on the multifarious reasons why a text comes down to the adept reader as obscure: it seems difficult to doubt that, as I said in an earlier section on this topic, that at times the text simply represents the inner caste of mind of the heterodox writer; he's an odd egg, this one. Let us see if we can catch what he's on to. It seems that the poetic intellect who speaks to his colleagues in a baroque and ramshackle way, filled with archaisms and wild digressions and dense allusions and rhetorical flourishes of a surprisingly virtuoso bend...will end up writing in an obscure way.

Then again, the obscure texts may represent a migration in mind away from the immediate circumstances. Outwardly, the writer gets along in some social situation that is repressive. Inwardly, (s)he has moved into a cultivated world of symbols, often intensely personal and so inherently obscure to us.

So yes: we must also look at the socio-political milieu in which the writer operated. Was what (s)he seemed to get at, when unpacked, a possible threat to fascists or totalitarians of some sort? This may be a difficult problem - if there is one - to ascertain. A further problem, and one holding seemingly many more possible difficulties: what about the writer's immediate family and circle of friends and acquaintances? What might be threatened if not for an exceedingly odd act of writing?

I feel this subtopic of what I have called "internal immigration" veers too far away from the main thrusts here; nevertheless I find the questions brought up by the idea quite noticeably pregnant. If I recall correctly, I first saw the term "internal immigration" in a text by Noam Chomsky, and I would bet he was using it in a different sense than I have here. Nonetheless: Chomsky? Dankeschon!


Eric Wagner said...

Thinking of the Jumping Jesus Phenomena, Joyce and Pound came from that first generation which actually lived through a doubling of information.

One might include Shakespeare and the Bible as texts which continue to befuddle me.

I bought my first copy of the Wake on February 2, 1984. I putzed around with it for about 13 months until I started reading Prometheus Rising, which mentioned a Finnegans Wake study group. That sounded like a cool idea. I modeled it on Bible study groups I'd attended and have had Finn groups ever since. I've had one at the high school where I teach for 13 years, so I've actually spent more years reading Finn with teens than I did reading Finn with adults. The book puzzles me still. I tend to have a great time reading it in a group.

michael said...

How do you keep teens from giving up on FW after, say, the first page? FW seems to go against the media grain more and more every day: ADD, quick jumps to new info, reacting to mundane, everyday social actions via miraculous little quantum-gadgets. It all seems militant towards the FW world of actually READING that claybook.

BTW: have you run tinto a really good source on Dante that fits my riffs on obscure texts here?

Eric Wagner said...

A few of my tenth grade honors students seem interested in a book that seems mysterious and forbidden. It helps that adults sometimes tell them not to read Finnegans Wake. A salesperson at Barnes and Noble once tried to talk one of them out of buying a copy. I also get a few non-honors students who become intrigued by the Wake. Plus, FW seems to have a lot of "ADD, quick jumps to new info, reacting to mundane, everyday social actions via miraculous little quantum-gadgets" as McLuhan noted.

Pound wrote an essay on Binyon's translation of the Inferno included in his Literary Essays. Pound talks about Dante throughout his criticism and poetry, for instance in Confucius to cummings and especially in his essays on Cavalcanti. I've read T. S. Eliot's short book on Dante twice.

Oz Fritz said...

I once read an annotated Divine Comedy that noted many allusions to the Italian political situation of the day. Unfortunately, I don't remember who did it.

Eric Wagner said...

"On this island," she went on, "as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it's Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers - all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted. Nothing beyond. Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievouly, are simply 'taking it too seriously.' The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it's 'irony' or 'a bit of fun,' for it's only combinations of letters after all, isn't it."
- Against the Day, pg. 224, Thomas Pynchon

michael said...

BINGO! on the Pynchon passage. Sheer gold. Megathanks for typing it out. I have about 17 books going at once, and am still not up to page 224.

But I will have a LOT to say on Pynchon's politics by the time I finish AtD.

michael said...

@OsFritz: Yes, I've read in many places from serious Dante exegetes that he was openly naming names of people who every reader at the time would've known, that he was coding some other names/instances/historical events, and Leary once said something that has still left me hanging: that Dante's family was involved in some sort of drug running? Anyone got a line on that?

I have read the entire Comedy once - in college, too fast - and have dipped into it in fits and starts, but consider myself a very rank not-yet amateur in reading Dante. Annabel Lee?