Kay Ryan, “All You Did”

All You Did (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.
All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

Comment:

Ambition, guilt, and perspective combine in this poem’s fatalism. It casts us in the role of a panicked mountain climber, to begin:

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.

The effect of these simple observations dizzies. Climbing, assuming the summit within reach, one fails to find a crack. Panic emerges in quiet, too-reasonable propositions. “A higher pin cannot be set:” am I stuck on a sheer vertical face? “Nor can you go back:” what Ryan has left unstated is best left unstated.

Before I comment on “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical,” we should contemplate the concreteness of this poem. Often, we create no-win situations, striving, reaching a point of exhaustion and failure, like nothing has been planned or thought through. I think it safe to say this poem focuses on the largest objects: relationships, healing broken families, fighting for one’s health, raising children, creating, even getting a degree – things, in short, that take years of one’s life. The very ambition and drive pushing us to the top makes the guilt that much harder to bear. How could we have been so stupid, planned so badly?

The collapse of ambition into guilt, that terrible numbness, invites the question of perspective. Ryan does not let the emotional effect fade. The poem’s brevity makes me feel like I’m suspended on a cliff-face, wondering what in hell brought me here, watching my life flash before my eyes. That, I think, is the import of “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical.”

It is interesting, then, that the question of perspective presents itself in a flashback:

All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

The flashback attempts to absolve guilt even as it makes it worse. I wasn’t really ambitious, I tell myself, I just made a simple choice of walking into a room. At once, I think I could have walked away earlier, or I was “lured” by the fact I live life. Guilt, in the end, is a pretty useless concept, as it is the equivalent of being stranded on a cliff-face.

Perspective itself offers a bit more clarity. Instead of looking at ourselves as world-beating wall-climbers or victims of fate, maybe we should just admit that we were doing what we loved all along. It was just as easy for us to climb a cliff as it was to walk into a room. That was the trap, and it was impossible to avoid, because the world presented itself to us gradually through it. We know now what it means to know. The cost is terrible. There is nothing more to say.

“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth TX

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. November 8, 2015 – February 14, 2016
Exhibition website

I

It is somewhat unsettling that a painter as accomplished as Caillebotte critiques two artistic virtues: the desire for order and one’s intensity of focus. Both are considered emblematic of human reason. I don’t think rationality necessarily underlies serious painting, as, say, throwing away Expressionism and the Fauves in favor of realizing Platonic forms makes no sense. Insisting on a strict correspondence between art and rationality leads to the worst sort of conservatism, one that can’t help but be self-parody. But I do think an artist wants to see his audience engage a work as intelligently as possible, and that it is possible to create a dark cynicism which discourages a fully engaged audience. If we desire to better our minds, we could adopt an air of arrogance while striving for order, training a more serious gaze. However, not all of us will look like this guy:

Gustave Caillebotte, "L'Homme au balcon, Boulevard Haussmann" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “L’Homme au balcon, Boulevard Haussmann” (1880)

Dressed in the finery of his top hat and tailored jacket, our protagonist stands regally, impatiently upon his wrought-iron balustrade, overlooking the boulevard in Paris on a bright, lush day. He’s waiting not so much to see others as to be seen. The modern, reformed Paris of Napoleon III into which he stares is really his hope and expectation. I’d like to laugh a bit at his pomposity, but then again, I’ve gone to an art museum to get digits, and we’re staring out the doorway at him. That glass door on the right reflects both of us.

II

Pretensions to higher class claim a superior grasp of rationality, the status of natural aristocracy. Whether Social Darwinism promoting Carnegie and Rockefeller as more evolved, or the ancien régime concluding any alternative to it irrational, we arrive at the same place. Yet there’s something honest, refreshing, and strangely modest about a well-dressed guy trying to show off his outfit.

Gustave Caillbotte, "Portrait of Eugene Daufresne" (1878)

Gustave Caillbotte, “Portrait of Eugene Daufresne” (1878)

The Portrait of Eugene Daufresne (1878) features its subject tense in a chair, intent on the pages he has put directly in front of himself. The scene screams wealth. Lush fabrics abound: his suit, the red upholstery, the matching curtains. The tall, marble fireplace with some sort of golden ornament upon the mantel. His gold chain. I felt, looking at this in person, that the angle was thrusting me into his orbit. Do people who appropriate, who put everyone else in order, actually read?

Gustave Caillebotte, "Portrait of a Man" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Portrait of a Man” (1880)

Portrait of a Man (1880) conveys a very different feeling, despite strong parallels with the Portrait of Eugene Daufresne. The subject, suited in a red chair, sits by a wall with gold trim and a lace curtain. However, he gazes out the bright window almost in profile. If there is any doubt to what he’s thinking, then note the green of his vest complementing the verdure outside, the flower-like tie, and his tensing hands. He looks about to get up and go. Attention to order, our focus, brought us to his movement.

III

Gustave Caillebotte, "Game of Bezique" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Game of Bezique” (1880)

Still, the criticism of focus, directed to both artist and audience, is razor sharp. To be clear, consider Game of Bezique (1880). Each figure in the painting pays attention in his own way, culminating in satire. I remember being drawn in by the bearded player seated at the left of the table, holding cards. He stares at the cards with the intensity of one doing heart surgery. Standing tall beside him is a well-dressed, intrigued man. The two smoking pipes seated opposite wear their experience, but that doesn’t mean the gentleman in a brown jacket has any less focus. Only the guy on the couch, bored out of his skull, gives away the whole game. He’s not paying attention to any of this: he’s not paying attention in a study of people paying attention. Attentiveness is something we as observers read into others’ expressions. It’s a construct of the artist. Game of Bezique may be a trivial example, but can we imagine the same expressions in a scene from a laboratory, a hospital, or a battlefield?

Gustave Caillebotte, "Luncheon" (1876)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Luncheon” (1876)

Order, I feel, gets similar treatment in Luncheon (1876). The narrative that painting holds, the loss of a father, makes one wonder what would have happened if he simply painted a whole canvas black. The finery and rituals of the household mean nothing compared to the ghostly reflections of the crystal. Not order, but the weight of things, carries the grief. How necessary is order, anyway? Nude on a Couch (1880) has a potent sexuality emerge from its unusually frank earthiness. Her feet are badly bruised and swollen; her garments and shoes look burdensome, relentless, even thrown aside. Exhausted, her whole figure says “no” as the painting pulsates with tenderness.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Nude on a Couch" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Nude on a Couch” (1880)

IV

Gustave Caillebotte, "Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilliers" (1885)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilliers” (1885)

It’s strange to conclude that order and focus are, in a way, tricks we play on ourselves. To know how one knows is a much taller order than to simply know, but why should the consequences of this proposition feel so radical? Caillebotte’s command of scope might be his greatest asset. Everything is meant to frame the liveliness of just one object. In Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilles (1885), how the geometric buildings collapse into sinuous, twisted vines, all to display a mess of sunflowers. Within that mess, Caillebotte captures how some petals cast shadows on the flower itself. In Prairie at Yerres (1875), how the placement of trees and bushes creates a sense of depth, a never ending field of green.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Prairie at Yerres" (1875)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Prairie at Yerres” (1875)

Seamus Heaney, “Shifting brilliancies”

for Emma Askew

“Shifting brilliancies” (from Squarings: Lightenings)
Seamus Heaney

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

So the particular judgement might be set:
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into—
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.

And after the commanded journey, what?
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away, alone.

And it is not particular at all,
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round.
Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.

Reading:

“Shifting brilliancies:” for a moment, our wanderer experiences a variety of beautiful, overpowering things. For a moment, a wanderer has what she seeks. She has insights, she feels more in control, the world makes sense, she’s more confident…

Suddenly, “then winter light / In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep / A beggar shivering in silhouette.” A shift of light, a turn to reality. The winter light illumines what endures, “a beggar shivering in silhouette.” Not only does this end our wanderer’s reverie, but it forces the heights of shifting brilliancies down to earth. The beggar in silhouette is not seen directly. He’s beyond a doorway and must be ascended to. Truth is heavenly, dazzling, blinding; the beggar resides in a shrine of sorts. Mysteries are all we have.

Our wanderer realizes the danger of her dreaming. A particular judgement should be set against her if she keeps looking for some secret happiness, ignoring the suffering in front of her. Yet, at the same time: she is not allowed to think, to look for answers? The solution must involve identification with the beggar. Like him, she “has” an abandoned, useless home, a “bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into.” And just like him, her own freedom is an illusion. Only cloud-life is soul-free, unconstrained by necessities.

The rest of the poem wrestles with a beggar’s desperation. You get the distinct feeling our wanderer-speaker wants no more than to be one, if that manages to be more serious about human life. She openly questions the purpose of her own attempts to wander:

And after the commanded journey, what?
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away, alone.

The questioning, “the commanded journey,” makes our wanderer-speaker-beggar aware of her futility (“Nothing magnificent”) as well as what she already possesses (“nothing unknown”). Without neglecting the ills of poverty and fortune, she sees where she stands: “gazing out from far away, alone.” To have nothing and know you have nothing stands as precondition to a genuinely universal perspective.

“…It is not particular at all / Just old truth dawning.” If insights were ecstatic before, this one, “old truth dawning,” links to sobriety. Our speaker has traveled quite a bit in this poem, from joy in revelation to the shock of failure, poverty, and death. Taking a harsher perspective brings her closer to the beggar and enables true human freedom. The “unroofed scope” and “knowledge-freshening wind” only come about by pushing oneself to see and not being willfully blind. A sense of duty remains. You could say it is to rebuild the house, to uplift the poor. The needs of the world, for a moment, and only in a most curious way, correspond with intellectual growth, an inward search.

On Mysticism

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

– from Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” (466)

1. Entertaining Dickinson’s mysticism is dangerous. In several poems, she demonstrates a dark realism at odds with flowery diction and a sometimes singsong tone. On the surface, “This is my letter to the World” (519) pleads “Sweet countrymen” to judge her “tenderly.” Yet she shows no tenderness in her judgment of them. The World never wrote to her, she says, and her time was spent gathering the “News” of “Nature.” The countrymen neglected Nature; they neglected her deepest concern, not just her. Her plea is withering criticism: neglect of Nature is neglect of rationality. The word physics comes from Greek phusis, nature. Aristotle identifies man’s nature as potentially that of a rational animal. Dickinson’s world is cruel and stupid, in the last analysis.

A stark outlook also governs “Hope is the thing with feathers” (314). The thing with feathers, “Hope,” is neither immediately identified as a bird, nor its tune as melodious. Only in the face of a vicious storm are these more positive attributes brought forth. “Hope” may be nothing more than a reaction to the absence of hope, its reality always questionable.

2. Still, “the spreading wide my narrow Hands / to gather Paradise” calls forth wonder. Coupled with “Of Visitors – the fairest,” the lines invite speculation of an angelic visitor. How does the mystical emerge from hard, difficult truths? We need to see what questions are at stake in “I dwell in Possibility.” The first stanza, at first glance, resounds with joy:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Dwelling in Possibility sounds lovely. “A fairer House than Prose,” it feels like a purely imaginative state, not bound by words. Only obliquely does the topic of poetry manifest itself, as a counter to prose. The “fairer House” with “more numerous” windows and “Superior… Doors” stands on its own, refusing to reduce to a simple symbol.

3. Only as the House progresses do we understand the speaker and her concern. Numerous windows speak possibility, but superior doors present a challenge:

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –

Reading “Doors of Chambers as the Cedars” or “Chambers as the Cedars” makes little difference, I suppose. Something is sealed, inaccessible to the eye, or simply inaccessible. “Impregnable,” combined with the room imagery, tells the story: to choose is to favor one possibility over another. The others stand tall, perhaps bloom elsewhere, but yield no fruit for the speaker. One can only enter one room at a time, if that.

Choice means limits, even within a realm of possibility. Those limits constitute potential. Certainly, the poem illustrates that strange merger:

And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

“Roof,” “Gambrels” establish structure, while “everlasting” mocks any earthly doing and “Sky” obliterates the very notion structure ever mattered. It’s too positive, too bright, too temptingly beautiful, though in a way reflective of how we work with limits to transcend them. The speaker has revealed something crucial about herself, while hinting strongly at the darkness choice in itself presents.

4. Why was this poem ever uttered? “I dwell in Possibility” at first sounds like bliss, at last may actually be bliss. Considered carefully, however, possibility means commitment to a decision. The speaker wraps herself in Nature, adopting the rhetoric of its freedom. But she herself has made a decision:

Of Visitors – the fairest –

The most beautiful visitors are not earthly, not real. To dwell in Possibility is to choose loneliness. Not so subtly hiding is her lack of materials for building:

For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

You could say she’s lonely, has nothing, and has written a poem out of self-delusion. It isn’t quite that simple. Poetry in its original signification, Greek poesis, meant “making,” in the simple sense of making anything. Despite the presence of Nature, all making is in some sense ex nihilo, a gathering neither present before, nor again.

Leo Strauss, “Thoughts on Machiavelli”

for Laura Jensen

I

Daughter’s If You Leave refuses to let go. Over and over it indulges pains the mere thought of loss could provoke. Some might think this overblown, adolescent angst brought to a grander stage. Personally, I’m inclined to the view of Mr. Sam Shepherd of musicOMH: “The emotional honesty that informs every second of Daughter’s… album is so raw and damaged that it actually becomes quite frightening.” We have been given something raw and honest, terrible in its beauty. What now?

“Medicine,” from The Wild Youth EP, sold me on the band. The lyrics set up the problem of love and loss, letting it be tangled and complex. The speaker pleads with another to go “home.” “You could still be, / what you want to, / What you said you were, / when I first met you.” From these few lines, “home” sounds unqualifiedly good, staying completely bad. Ay, here’s the rub:

You’ve got a warm heart,
you’ve got a beautiful brain.
But it’s disintegrating,
from all the medicine.

If the audience of the message stays, the medicating continues, and everything continues to break down. If he leaves, the medicating stops. The speaker talks of “home,” implies the recovery of wholeness, is vague about everything else. Not for nothing do some people think this is about the “choice” cancer treatments pose. I tend to imagine it as the self-medicating which occurs in bad relationships. You can quit on being loved in some awful but still concrete way, hoping your pain will subside as you walk away and fend for yourself. Or you can take drugs, feel better, pass the time, hope you don’t break down completely.

Private, local pains are not small or irrelevant. They constitute worlds unto themselves, defining how we see anything and everything. Yet I do wonder what can be learned from their confession.

II

Machiavelli confesses a different way, shall we say. Credo – “I believe” – prefaces critical statements in works otherwise cryptograms. It is easy to get lost in what seems never-ending puzzles, forgetting the details of his personal pain. Dejected and disgraced after holding a senior post in a failed republic; hung from his wrists tied behind his back, feeling every moment of his shoulders dislocating.

Machiavelli’s mind contemplates both universal questions and particular practical problems. As the Letter to Vettori attests, he has no choice but to enter dialogue with the past, searching for nearly everything there. If he obtains wisdom, so be it. The necessity of imagined, ghostly interlocutors stands fundamental:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study…. I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them. (1)

An intimacy with old books is detailed which we might dismiss as delusional. He talks to dead kings and statesmen? He feels welcomed by them, given access to their motives and knowledge? He’s no longer afraid of death? These sound like the rantings of an insane man. In Xenophon, Socrates declares that he reads old books with his companions all the time, looking for wise things in which to take pleasure. Socrates, to be clear, is full of it. Only one instance remotely like this exists in all of Xenophon, and its erotic overtones are unmistakable. (2)

Of course, Machiavelli takes the time to document, closely, carefully, and cryptically, his engagement with the past. His work attests to far more than a passing acquaintance with Livy, Tacitus, Xenophon, and Plutarch. The description in the Letter above is the heart of the matter. Belief in his search, his task, makes what may otherwise be delusional the height of nobility.

III

What enterprise does he dare which requires so many bold claims, so much imaginative introspection? It feels like his pain pushed him to remake the world. All of it had to be remade: the medieval, feudal order and its traditional and ancient underpinnings had to go (cf. the title of Discourses I.26). His subversive, evil teaching, which involves using religion and turning morality on its head, could not be written in order as an instruction manual. Instead, it is chopped up and scattered so as to dodge the censors, appeal to particular audiences, and avoid causing immediate revulsion in those audiences.

There are clues in numerology, omissions, contradictions, references, and titles to the true order within his works. Nonetheless, those clues are frustrating to employ in large part. The more you try to use them, the more you scratch your head and wonder: Can anyone really read like this at length? Is it possible to learn anything from continuous and immediate rearrangement of the very book you’re trying to master? The clues have to be subordinate to a more intuitive approach to reading. Leo Strauss, in Thoughts on Machiavelli, provides the essential theme of the Discourses, one which would easily ensnare an ambitious reader of the Renaissance: the superiority of ancient orders to contemporary (modern) ones. (3) That theme alone can create a diligent, note-taking reader, one willing to write a manual for himself as he goes along. It is part and parcel of learning how to rule, after all. The theme lends itself to ordering Machiavelli’s comments in a useful way: maybe you’d put together a page or two on types of governments, or how cities are founded, conquered, kept, reordered, or how people respond to laws or policies in particular circumstances.

In which case, as soon as the advice on any one of these issues or others is put together, the subversive twist, one breaking from things both ancient and modern, is impossible to miss. To use a very famous example from The Prince: regarding types of government, Machiavelli speaks of principalities, places ruled by a prince. It looks like, at first glance, he’s trying to enable princes to simply conquer Fortune, achieve whatever they want. But one of his most elaborate examples of such a prince, the infamous Cesare Borgia, ultimately fails in his bid for power. And there are strong hints in other parts of his text that Machiavelli considers himself a prince. If his works are burned, it is because he has made himself something to be feared, not loved.

Perhaps the most subversive teachings concern maintaining a city. The topic seems wholly innocuous, unless one thinks beyond one’s situation to the problems of civil war, revolution, tyranny. Machiavelli argues that the religious order of his day, Christianity under the universal Church, does not have the flexibility, concern, or proper means to keep a people free. He makes this argument indirectly, as over and over he praises the ancient religion, the religion of the Romans, and how it was well used in supporting enterprises which were necessary, or ones where much could be gained and little lost, keeping class conflict in line, helping people be secure and not turn on each other like animals. (4) A quick glance at the various wars fought in Italy in Machiavelli’s time testify to the need for security and stability. Religion used rightly could aid proper governance.

Religion used wrongly? Again, an indirect critique. The Samnites, facing a battle with the Romans upon which their survival depended, held a ritual where the soldiers, one-by-one, would swear before an altar never to flee and kill anyone they saw fleeing (Discourses I.15). Some soldiers did not take the oath and were slaughtered on the spot. The Roman commander, hearing of all this, said two things to his men. First, Roman javelins should have no problem with their opponents’ shields. Second, the Samnites have nothing but fear of everything, and no actual strength. The Romans won the battle. What of the inhuman ritual, one which aimed to create courage through fear and trembling? What of insisting on a complete coincidence between private feelings and public virtues? The Samnites insisted on perfection while degrading the very people they needed to be perfect.

In the final analysis, Machiavelli pushes for things we take for granted. Enlightenment, secular government, private property, an emphasis on freedom and security rather than morality, equality before the law. Strauss’ contention about the Discourses, that Machiavelli presents himself as restoring ancient modes but goes far beyond, is half the battle. The notes one would take on regimes and tactics don’t address the most fundamental question: Who is Machiavelli to tell us all these things in the first place? I rather like Harvey Mansfield’s careful dissecting of a complicated statement from The Prince: “Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.” (5) At first, we’re apt to take this on its face, as we’ve heard that Machiavelli taught evil or unleashed nationalistic passion in the hope of revolution. Then we realize how utterly false it is. Jesus was most certainly not armed and yet conquered. Machiavelli himself is an unarmed prophet. What Machiavelli must mean is something about being armed in a different sense, perhaps having prudence, or knowledge that enables one to engage in spiritual warfare. (6)

IV

Our pains can remake the world, if they don’t already. But a funny thing about achievement of that magnitude is that it goes so far beyond what pain actually calls for: some sense of restitution, a sense of resolve, a space for healing. Those things seem almost meager, and they’re very difficult to get. Indeed, some people engaged in the grandest enterprises have gotten used to being ignored.

Which brings me back to Daughter. I’m listening to “In the Shallows,” with its delicate guitar and quiet, building instrumentation. The vocals cry, and the lyrics are heavy with suicidal-sounding verses:

And let it all rain down
From the blood stained clouds
Come out, come out, to the sea my love
And just
Drown with me

To state the obvious: I believe this song to be absolutely beautiful, and I don’t take it as a hymn to self-harm or suicide. For me, it’s about investing everything in a relationship, trying to get love right, make life right, and failing. What you hope, what I hope, is for our grief to be understood by each other. Unfortunately, the one who would most understand is already going. Hence, the cry to him/her:

If you leave
when I go
find me
in my shallows

One is left alone, left to own one’s grief to continue living. That grief is as a death, and I do remember a short poem of Dickinson’s being blithely dismissive of it. “Some things that stay there be / Grief — Hills — Eternity — / Nor this behooveth me.” Dickinson is wise on many matters, but if speaking past grief were so simple, we wouldn’t be human. Our pains make us responsible, strangely enough. Not in the limited sense that we learn from pain, but in that we feel very much part of the world. That sometimes, in giving ourselves our due, we are merely, rightly, truly asserting our place. No less than Machiavelli would agree. At length he emphasizes keeping things within the ordinary when possible, typically using “extraordinary” to describe the influence of another world upon us.

Notes

1. Machiavelli, Letter to Vettori. Quoted from Wikipedia’s entry on Machiavelli, accessed 11/29/2015: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

2. Xenophon, Memorabilia I.6.14 ; Symposium 4.27-28

3. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. p. 91-92

4. ibid., p. 86

5. Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 3-4

6. ibid., p. 101

Kay Ryan, “Tenderness and Rot”

Tenderness and Rot (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Tenderness and rot
share a border.
And rot is an
aggressive neighbor
whose iridescence
keeps creeping over.

No lessons
can be drawn
from this however.

One is not
two countries.
One is not meat
corrupting.

It is important
to stay sweet
and loving.

Comment:

1. “One is not meat corrupting,” claims the poem. It’s a noble sentiment I’d like to immediately indulge. Unfortunately, Yeats has his narrator in Sailing to Byzantium pray for his heart to be “consumed:” “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is.” To be sure, Yeats follows Augustine in this sentiment. From Book 1 of the Confessions: “For what would I say, O Lord my God, but that I know not whence I came into this dying life (shall I call it?) or living death.”

So much profundity, so little time. A decision must be made, somehow, to afford a reader just a smidgen of clarity. Yeats’ narrator and Augustine himself have grand ambitions; their saintliness bespeaks a tragic heroism. The speaker of Sailing to Byzantium sees his frustration with the world as nothing less than the call to eternal life. He sounds childish and petty while following Christ’s dictum all too perfectly. For him, the dead might as well bury themselves, if not the living. The world has been renounced so much that it actually elevates. In the end, he can only speak of himself as a mechanical bird, an artifice lasting forever, a thing.

Augustine is a more complicated case, and I am no Augustine scholar. I will say that what impressed me most with what I’ve read is his earnestness. He really wants the truth of Christianity, the truth reason uncovers, and his self-knowledge to coincide. He can identify points in his own life where he has become better from this combination working in concert. I’ll just state that his is a rather large project, and if it did work for him, it may not be quite as applicable to anyone else. Which might be a problem if you’re a bishop preaching this not as an understanding of the world, but as the understanding of the world.

In the face of not being our ideals, or from crafting ideals so perfect they become remote, we are “meat corrupting.”

2. The poem employs different reasoning, starting from somewhere different. Ryan’s speaker watches rot develop upon a formerly fresh, beautiful object. “Tenderness and rot share a border:” you can’t separate the beautiful from the ugly, or virtue from vice, or the high from the low. This is not to declare that all things one does are destined to collapse, that there is some ironclad law of irony which should prevent anyone from doing anything. It is to say that things are stranger than we anticipate. Rot, of all things, is a beauty all its own, maybe richer and more compelling than what we saw as beautiful before: “rot is an aggressive neighbor whose iridescence keeps creeping over.”

And that’s it. That’s as far as Ryan will go. Rot has an “iridescence,” marking it as subtle and deep as any enlightenment received from more celebratory experiences. Still, no more searching is necessary: “No lessons can be drawn from this however.”

I’m tempted to say this is an incomplete poem, shifting abruptly to an end instead of probing for a deeper question. That maybe this poem isn’t ambitious enough. Certainly, the last two stanzas look on their own like conventionality made epigrammatic:

One is not
two countries.
One is not meat
corrupting.

It is important
to stay sweet
and loving.

One must keep in mind the drama of the poem. The speaker is watching rot occur and is transfixed. When she declares “one is not two countries,” she has to be rebelling against that darker vision. The meat itself is not two countries, though it appears so. If I am tempted to think of myself as either my failure or my success, I’m wrong on both counts. I am both my failure and my success, whatever that mixture is. Employing the distinction cancels out me.

That points to the deeper reason why this can’t be thought through for lessons’ sake. It might be said that it is the nature of all things to ripen and then decay. Fine, but there are two problems. First, the more one uses that as a governing thought, the more one turns oneself into an object. Second, to reaffirm the above, note that Ryan is emphatic with the term “one.” In order to understand the objects in the world, we knowers must treat each of them as one, not two. Inasmuch rot points to the dissolution of the object, it forces us to treat it as two or more.

All the same, there is no knowledge in the strict sense without considering how the good can go bad, or how what we conceive good actually is more of a trade-off to begin with. Ryan’s point stands: no lessons can be drawn from simply seeing tenderness and rot share a border. A far more complicated and thorough inquiry may yield another set of concerns and questions. But that means being able to trust oneself to see, then work through what that seeing actually is.

Therefore, an ironic lesson of sorts. Not really a lesson, more a reaction, more an assumption of the speaker: “It is important to stay sweet and loving.” This seems too simplistic, and it is. Morality isn’t the same thing as being nice. Yet there are people who do horrific, unspeakable things. They don’t find redemption, they may not be redeemable, but they go on. Sometimes, they’re remembered by others as quiet, sometimes even at moments as sweet and loving. I don’t quite know what to say about the human encompassing the inhuman.

“Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland,” at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth TX

Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. June 28, 2015 – Sept. 20, 2015 (now finished)
Exhibition website

Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness.

– Nietzsche

In the following observations, I have failed to obey either of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. My hope was to see some themes, more elaborately developed elsewhere, emerge in these works. That is still my hope: everything here is being revised. I will keep rewriting until this is perfect.

I

Sandro Botticell, "Virgin with Sleeping Christ Child" (c. 1485)

Sandro Botticelli, “Virgin with Sleeping Christ Child” (c. 1485)

My clunky thoughts, at times, try to grasp this thing called “nature.” That already sounds too arrogant, granted. To be sure, the idea behind trying to think through it was simple enough. In Plato and Aristotle, the word is everywhere. It shows up, weighty and convincing, in a number of later authors. I could go read a bunch of scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima,” or try and find out for myself what makes the term so intriguing, why an author would ever employ it. On the one hand, it speaks to the unity of all things, one which may be apprehended by human reason. The natural world, its beauty, laws, agency, all beg to be understood. Begin to understand one object and you’re much better about finding parallels and relevance in others. On the other hand, it speaks to us, directly. We have natures. Is our social life a necessary deformation of who we are?

Botticelli seems a far cry from all that. His graceful lines give figures suppleness, strength, removing them from my anxious questioning. Here, he indulges the supernatural. Contrived, iconic, contemplative, this painting boasts a young, blonde Madonna praying over a Christ child. He naps separately from her, resting only on her robes. No human family keeps such distance: there is no physical contact between mother and child. Exquisite and decorative, it abounds with mystical symbolism. His fitful sleep and the stone structure in the background suggest His passion and death. Pink flowers without thorns symbolize the Immaculate Conception. She wears pink, and the shape her garments form feels loose, natural, flowery. This contrasts with the lace of her veil, the subtly wrought halos, the gold thread of the garments.

The contrast enables a sharp distinction. Her robes are really the opposite of more delicate designs, even though they complement each other. Those delicate designs bear the mark of a creator. The robes fall because of gravity, because of laws that define the universe itself. In a similar vein: Does nature simply symbolize the details of eternal mysteries, or does it have a weight of its own? The Madonna demonstrates piety but no particular passion, as she seems genuinely innocent of all that is about her.

II

Titian, "Venus Anadyomene" (c. 1580)

Titian, “Venus Anadyomene” (c. 1520)

Somehow, I kept a rough version of that question with me as I walked through the gallery. It was a crowded day, and I was fighting through couples and old people pretending to be cultured. I thought myself making no such pretense. T-shirt, jeans, sad. It would have been nice to start blathering about a painting, make up some crap, find someone else who wants to make up crap, get a phone number. It would have felt affirming, maybe even helped me heal. Maybe I would have found myself able to join the art around me.

Two paintings, Titian’s “Venus Anadyomene” (c. 1520) and Veronese’s “Mars and Venus and Cupid with a Dog” (c. 1580) bring the gods to our level. Yes, Titian’s has a striking classical pose, one which seems to remove her from the everyday. Wringing seawater out of her hair is a detail one Apelles once painted: Is hers the truest, oldest beauty? The paradigm for all others? Still, the shell beside her does not necessarily make a goddess, no matter how divine her beauty seems. Venus in Veronese could be any woman smitten with a man in uniform. Cupid’s wings are almost invisible. An unholy family, the most natural thing; idealized beauty, I’m not sure. Art is a strange contrivance, and artists are fully aware of what they’re doing. The realism which impresses us bourgeois means nothing to someone concerned about how we see, how we can see.  Velazquez’s “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs” uses tight brushwork to render objects lustrous and precise; it won Velazquez fame for his eye and technique. Yet Velazquez loosens his brushwork considerably not so much later. Others with a parallel change, shifting their style entirely: Monet, Picasso.

III

Rembrandt, "A Woman in Bed" (c. 1646)

Rembrandt, “A Woman in Bed” (c. 1646)

It’s strange, thinking about the supernatural as a construct. I can’t help but feel like I’m condemned to superficiality. I probably should read those scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima” and stay quiet. If I simply track what I saw and felt, then I saw Christian symbolism and pagan gods reduced to most natural elements. But it didn’t end there: the divine didn’t just become the human. Since many artists know what they’re doing, some create images knowingly, winking at us and wondering with us. They’re offering up idols for our consumption. It’s like this can’t be escaped, and I still don’t have a phone number.

Rembrandt’s “A Woman in Bed” (c. 1646) at first indulges our want of luxury. Bright gold jewelry, elaborate thread on a pillow’s edge, carved woodframe, and a red-gold drape. A very healthy, handsome woman in bed pushes the drape aside, staring out at something. Maybe she’s Sarah, from the book of Tobit, looking on as her bridegroom chases away a demon. Maybe that can explain the look on her face of exhaustion, concern, hope.

IV

The beauty of art is a prelude. But to what? I’m ready to put aside the supernatural entirely, despite how it lingers over the Rembrandt. He doesn’t need to show a man fighting a demon to show a story that matters. Still, contrasting the natural with the supernatural alone doesn’t yield a coherent account of the former.

I am puzzled by what I think natural in the Rembrandt, the facial expression, as art need not directly point to the natural. Obviously, it can be lost in its own craftiness, toying with divine things, roaming between representation and making. Sometimes what one needs is a punch in the gut, and I don’t know “natural” is an appropriate term for what results. Picasso’s “Mother and Child” (c. 1902), from his Blue Period, features the unmistakable shape of a woman cradling a bald, brown lump. Her back is turned to us; in the corner, a pathetic basket with swaddling clothes. Picasso made this while visiting a women’s prison regularly. If to be a social, talking animal is natural, then what of being broken? Is it not natural to suffer, to feel the weight of one’s own expectations crush one? Do these questions make any sense?

V

John Singer Sargent, "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" (c. 1892)

John Singer Sargent, “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (c. 1892)

In the end, the only plausible course is to continue attempting to track the natural, aware of perspective. Beauty itself becomes the question. Not “Why do we want it?”, but rather why I ever wanted it. Finding my own nature is the problem. Degas’ “Diego Martelli” (c. 1879), on this count, makes me wonder about who I want to be, the compliments I’ve received that I cannot possibly live up to. I need not mention the failures. Degas’ portrait of an immensely talented critic and friend is taken from exactly the right perspective: above him, angled down. Rumpled, surrounded by books, looking like he’s gathering thoughts and keeping himself from speaking, he looms that much larger in his thoughtfulness. Small wonder both artist and subject fought over who should keep the painting. – I am so jealous. –

Again, I’ve been lucky to receive enormously beautiful compliments, but when all is said and done, this life has been a failure so far. All I have are a few pretentious, egotistical ramblings and no practical skills. Maybe, at the heart of art, is what we love. Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (c. 1892) gives us a great beauty in her prime. Relaxed and confident, she’s completely in control of the viewer. The flowery chair, the lavender dress, the silver ornament all mean nothing compared to her gaze. She’s looking up at us and will not take no for an answer. Her portrait made her a social sensation while building Sargent’s own reputation. The price of having an image alone dictate your life is rather steep, I should say. Lady Agnew eventually sold her own portrait late in life to keep her status afloat. It could be that I’m lucky to love and not possess.

Caesar III (Impressions Software, 1998)

“Have to make the people go where they must,” I keep telling myself. 

Playing Caesar 3, which some call “SimRome.” Efficient city-building means getting everyone access to goods and services. Except, say, when you set a Library down, it doesn’t cover a specific portion of the map unless you know exactly what you’re doing. The Library produces a Librarian, who walks on the paths built. Build the paths badly and he may wander over to the industrial section of town, never past any homes: there might as well not be a library. Some of the more complicated problems, in terms of the game itself, involve getting adequate information. Feeding people requires a seller from the Market to walk around the neighborhood, but that same seller has to make a trip to the Granary to get food. If the Granary is running short, it is quite likely she’ll attempt the trip and bring back nothing. Your city will look good, the workers will be busy, but the houses won’t evolve into better units consistently. You won’t realize your own citizens are starving.

Currently, I hold the title of Quaestor. My service to Caesar has resulted in some of the world’s ugliest cities. A solid strategy is to make simple paths: create a large 9×9 block, housing around the perimeter two rows deep, with gardens and a fountain in the center. Gardens increase property value; fountains are the water supply. The road around the houses lends itself to surrounding the 9X9 block with every service imaginable. The providers will walk around, their path obvious, and every home will receive in due time.

The trouble is that the resulting cities aren’t merely ugly, they’re untrue to life. The second book of Aristotle’s Politics tends to be a boring read for most. Aristotle spends considerable time there talking about this city planner who was overly devoted to the number three. Everything would be divided in accordance with his mystical number. It’s easy to laugh at him, but the problem cuts deeper than childish, utopian visions. In order to build a city, you have to impose from the very beginning. That initial imposition, as people better than me have noted for centuries, is pretty much nothing less than pure tyranny. Yet to so overwhelmingly lack any actual knowledge of how people behave or what they need and desire isn’t just inhumane. It leads to a potential knower’s own craziness: why not just divide everything up into threes? Your vision might be beautiful, and your “threes” will correspond with something pertaining to human life. If you actually know better, you should guess rightly.

There’s something about how cities organize themselves I’d like to observe better. The Librarian isn’t wandering to the industrial section because of his thirst for knowledge, but because the path was built badly. The busy work of those in the market, unfortunately, is too true to life. We don’t really know how many people in America live on $2 a day; the number is invisible and of the utmost significance. In game, I try to put buildings near each other you wouldn’t normally consider together to see what happens. What if a school is next to the blacksmith, a warehouse near the baths? What about a library adjacent to a barracks? My virtual citizens go about their daily business like nothing’s happening. Real cities, in their refusal of orthodoxy, reflect deeper needs. I think I read once that right across from Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, there used to be the city jail, and the prisoners had no qualms about begging from people like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington for food and alms as they passed by.

Kay Ryan, “Blandeur”

Blandeur (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

Comment:

Let less happen. Lord, cancel beauty and majesty, flatten Eiger, rid the Grand Canyon of colors and depth. Replace these with a perfectly spherical Earth, predictable, conforming to equations.

Give me a measure of control, perfection of a sort. Let the Earth be simply useful. Slightly higher valleys don’t hide fertility. Clearly mark where we can grow food, where we ought not tread. Above all, do not allow nature any independence, revoke its command over terror, change, beauty:

remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.

Unlean against our hearts. Let the world be ours, without question.

Paul Celan, “Vinegrowers”

Vinegrowers (from Poetry)
Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth,

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds,

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I made a podcast about this poem. Titus has been working on an extended commentary on how the original German works. I’ve been fortunate to read part of it, and I can safely tell you it’s beautiful and thoughtful (but then again, who would expect any less?). When it is finished, I will be sure to share the link. For now, here’s the podcast and a brief discussion of the above translation. Credit to Titus for most of the observations which follow:

“Vinegrowers” is Celan’s last poem. Celan killed himself, and one might expect to find darkness attendant upon this lyric. Instead, we encounter a cryptic comment on Creation. First, a garden:

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth

Vinegrowers dig in the dark; both starlight and the clock attest to their earliness. They’re doing, but no matter what, they’re starting, unclear on what is actually being done. “Dig up dig” and “depth for depth” indicate the only accomplishment is an ever-increasing pile of dirt.

Suddenly, Celan switches the scene:

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds

Everything shifts with “you read.” You just read that vinegrowers dig in the dark, randomly piling in the name of making an effort. Your reading resulted in you imagining a scene. With the author, you have created.

That strange thought leads to the next scene, where “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds.” Prior to the garden, the word was present at Creation, governing it. The invisible logos commands the invisible “to stay in bounds,” to accept restriction and allow for differentiation.

Things actually are; this is a real world we live in. But our access to it is curious. Images are created, images which present forms which, in turn, seem to generate or define the beings around us. “Seem” is the operative word. Just as the poet digs, looking for the right words, ones which never quite match his object, the vinegrowers are all of us, not quite knowing what we’re doing. Only God matches the act of creating with a specific object. There are, for the rest of us, degrees of not knowing exactly what one is doing.

Those degrees mean that “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds” has a special significance for the poet, the one thinking aloud through this problem. He’s a vinegrower too, but he knows what light can do. The last stanza:

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath

Once again, “you read.” The invisible power restricting the winds before? That was a myth you read, imagined, gave life to. It was not without consequence, though. “The Open Ones carry the stone behind the eye.” The invisible meanings from before led to a species of openness – you asked questions – and the very thing blocking your eye, forcing your reading to be a pipeline to your imagination only, has now moved behind the eye. It isn’t gone; it did not dissolve. When we truly learn, we remember how we learned. Understanding falsity is the path to knowledge. Yet we are not in control, not in the least: “it recognizes you.” True knowledge is a revelation of sorts, as we are remade and at rest in the world.