Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

The "Heroic" Liar

Lest we forget at least an over the shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins - or which is which), the very first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom - Lucifer.

--Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

The phenomenon of the "heroic" Satan--either as a mythological construction or a political ideal--endures in popular culture, and in low- and middle-brow intellectual circles.  These notes should be helpful in clearing up the misconceptions upon which such thinking and talk is based. Milton represents a serviceable point of departure for examining the issue.

From Milton's perspective, everything about Satan is a lie, including his "cosmic complaint" and his "heroic" identity. That readers and poets over the years have read this in any other way is perhaps attributable to Milton's portrayal of the arch fiend--if he is to be a believable Satan, then he might appear at times to be the "wronged being" he claims to be. But again and again Milton shows how Satan is nothing but a lie and a liar. This understanding is neatly underscored by the first epic simile that occurs in the Paradise Lost, here employed in a description that neatly characterizes the illusion and the deception qua deception that is the arch-fiend:

Thus, talking to his nearest Mate,
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large,        195
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast        200
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream.
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,        205
With fixèd anchor in his scaly rind,
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wishèd morn delays.
So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,

Next consider consider Shelley's assessment of Satan from the second paragraph of his Preface to Prometheus Unbound:
The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.
Upon this landscape we can drill deeper into a philosophical assessment of the Great Deceiver's character, which I'll present here as a description of the "place" of poetry in  philosophical analysis.  To begin, consider the epistemology under-girding Jung's concept of myth:
Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually repeated and can be observed over and over again. It is something that happens to man, and men have mythical fates just as much as the Greek heroes do. 
                                --Carl Jung, CW 11, Para 648.
Here Jung's understanding of language is off, and he is advancing what, for the purposes of my argument, I shall call the "Satanic Lie." Now, this is dramatic phraseology, so I should underscore that "conceptual confusion" is probably better language. In any event, in this assessment I am following Milton and Wittgenstein.

Myth/poetry: I use the words interchangeably: myth is poetry, poetry is myth, and a poem/myth is either in some sense accurate, or in some sense deceptive. Compare Wittgenstein: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (PI§109). In Paradise Lost, Milton's poetry is an instrument to analyze this very bewitchment, and as such the epic can be read as an anthropological exposition of the emergence of analytic philosophy and clear(er) understanding. In Milton, the language of religion and religious myth becomes the vehicle for the emergence of this clearer understanding: the transcendence of misunderstanding and deception (lies/Satan) is realized metaphorically in the victory of the Son, who is the clarification of philosophical credulousness that is rooted in conceptual confusion and the misuse of language. In Paradise Lost, Milton is using the poem to analyze this very bewitchment, and as such it can be read as an anthropological exposition of the emergence of analytic philosophy and clear(er) understanding. In Milton, the language of religion and religious myth becomes the vehicle for the emergence of this clearer understanding: the transcendence of misunderstanding and deception (lies/Satan) is realized metaphorically in the victory of the Son, who is the clarification of philosophical credulousness that is rooted in conceptual confusion and the misuse of language.

Milton begins with religious language because of our historical circumstance. We are forced to use this language, but over time the discussion produces various heterodoxies that allow us to view the linguistic-stream-of-life confluence in toto--or rather in context--thus enabling us to gain a clear overview of the parts, the whole, and their relations to each other.

Hester and Dimmesdale go through this in The Scarlet Letter: the context of their Calvinist orthodoxy gives them the linguistic tools they use to transcend that same orthodoxy. In working this out, Hawthorne suggests a two-phase Calvinist experience, and places the "post-Calvinist" phase at the center of American political and philosophical understanding. Compare Melville in Moby-Dick, and Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Nabokov plays on this string producing marvelous effects in Pale Fire. The plot and theme of these novels is suggested by Wittgenstein:
  What is your aim in philosophy? - To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

                                         ~  Ludwig Wittgenstein, PI §309
I argue, too, that this post-Calvinist worldview compares very closely to core aspects of Judaism, and also sets forth the outlines of the modern worldview we associate with Ockham, Bacon, Locke, and Jefferson--whose originality chiefly rests in his ability to clarify these ideas in memorable and effective political language. 

This post-Calvinist worldview compares very closely to core aspects of Judaism, and also sets forth the outlines of the modern worldview.

And so where does this place poetry?  Short answer:  Understanding the sense of propositions proceeds the project of explaining reality (poetry, science), as the analysis of the former calls into question the authority of the latter. 

Milton--returning once more--uses poetry as a vehicle for examining the anthropology of human understanding, so empowering us to realize Wittgenstein's aim of showing the way out. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Initial Impression

The other day I received an email from Michael Butterworth, who had some kind things to say about the new Tasso translation:
Received Saturday the copy I ordered from Amazon, and how it lives up to its expectations! The cover has printed after all your pains, and the colours and details are bright and sharp.

The interior illustrations are the big surprise, as I haven’t seen them before. All work beautifully!

I don’t have time to do duty to the text, but I have looked through it closely, and read deeply here and there. It reads modern, and, as you say in your Preface, the translation renders it suitable for reading orally (as you did), contrary to the original Italian.

Congratulations once again to all involved. You have done a great job.

Best wishes,

To view the Amazon sales page for Torquato Tasso's Creation of the World, please click the cover image:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

Trafika Europe 8 – Romanian Holiday

Trafika Europe 8 – Romanian Holiday is now available to view on-line. The latest edition of the journal, edited by Andrew Singer, features Romanian fiction & poetry from Constantine Severin, Doina Ruşti, Claudiu Komartin, Mircea Cărtărescu, T O Bobe, Elise Wilk, Corina Bernic and Ioana Pârvulescu. plus writing from Russia, Germany and Turkey.

Please click here to view the new issue.  Click here to view the Trafika Europe website.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Michael Butterworth on Arthur Machen

I asked Michael Butterworth for his advice on what I should read by and about Arthur Machen, and he sent the following:
Well, definitely John Gawsworth’s The Life of Arthur Machen if you can get hold of a copy (a Tartarus book). This should be read in tandem with Aiden Reynolds and William Charlton’s biography Arthur Machen, which is more workmanlike but tells Machen’s life to the end (Gawsworth’s book stops about ten years before Machen’s death). It also examines Machen’s work more closely.

These full-length works of Machen’s are indispensable:

The Hill of Dreams (an unacknowledged classic novel of decadent literature and the most important of his works; if you read nothing else, read this)
Things Near and Far (memoir)
Far Off Things (memoir; this and Things Near and Far are these days usually sold together in one volume; a third memoir is The London Adventure, not as good but still well worth reading)
The Secret Glory (a novel, badly flawed but brilliant)
Hieroglyphics (Machen’s theory of good literature containing the element of ecstasy is as idiosyncratic as Poe; cleverly constructed novel-cum-literary-criticism)
A Fragment of Life (often reprinted in collections as a long short story, which is what it is, though it first appeared as a book)
Ornaments in Jade (a collection of short prose-poetry pieces)
Dog & Duck (a collection of essays; Machen did a few other non-fiction collections — Dreads and Drolls, Bridles and Spurs, Notes and Queries — which are all worth the read).
The Terror (a cleverly written fantasy set during the Great War; hack work, as Machen regarded it, but its anthropomorphic animals might well have had an influence on Orwell’s Animal Farm almost thirty years later)
The Bowmen (see note immediately below)

He is most famous for a few slight stories collected as The Bowmen, which he wrote for a newspaper he worked for during The Great War. Although the stories can in no way be classified as literature they gave rise to the widely believed myth, of The Angel of the Mons, so they are interesting for this reason. Although Machen didn’t set out to write a hoax (a la Poe) that’s what he achieved with these stories. Poe would have loved to have produced them!

His other full-length works are mostly early, written when he was trying to find his voice under the influence of writers like Stevenson (of New Arabian Nights vintage) e.g. Machen’s novels The Three Imposters, The Great God Pan, etc. Unfortunately they are the works he is remembered for (and praised for by the likes of Stephen King and ST Joshi) but while his ideas were inventive and the structure experimental, the language far from sparks. For me, at any rate, it is deadly dull. His even earlier books (such as The Chronicle of Clemendy) are influenced by eighteenth century authors, and suffer in a similar way, where he is unable to get the writing to sing. (He later produced a book of the best bad reviews he received, Precious Balms, which shows he was widely lampooned for his attempts at producing horror.)

He produced many great short stories, too numerous to mention here, but for me a lot of them are marred by the Edwardian Stevenson-derived voice he affected that has not travelled well. With these, you will have to take pot luck, and decide whether you like them or not as you come to them. ‘The White People’ is a classic — once you get into it! The story is book-ended by uninspiring narrative that attempts to ‘frame’ or contextualise it. Another classic is ‘N’ (which has the aforementioned Edwardian voice, but here works), which first appeared as an original story in his collection, The Cosy Room. It is unusual also because it is a late work, when his spark had mostly gone (e.g. in his novel The Green Round).

ST Joshi introduces the current Penguin edition of Machen (The White People and Other Weird Stories). I complained about Joshi’s Penguin selection to my friend Ian Johnson, who wrote to me:

One complaint I have with these Penguin Classics editions of weird fiction is that they are, with few exceptions, edited by S. T. Joshi.  Joshi is a first-rate if rather pedantic scholar, and his annotations are thorough and informative, but he labours in the shadow of Lovecraft’s long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”; consequently, his Penguin selections of Blackwood, Dunsany, Machen, et al. tend to be assembled from stories that either influenced Lovecraft or were praised by Lovecraft.  This is a great pity, since the overall effect is to reduce these writers to mere footnotes to the Cthulhu mythos and lens their works through same—not this this is explicitly Joshi’s aim, but it perhaps serves to explain why he has included certain stories and others omitted others.  Interestingly, Hill of Dreams is mentioned favourably in the Lovecraft essay, but HPL makes clear his preference for Machen’s work of the 1890s.
In other words, Machen’s curse is to have been defined by Lovecraft. It is a mixed blessing, of course. But it explains why Joshi rates those stories so highly, which are not Machen’s best work. I said to Ian that it was a pitiable shame that once again Machen (with this Penguin edition) was being overlooked by lesser work for his masterpiece The Hill of Dreams

His first commercial works were catalogues (for a London book dealer), and two translations into English, firstly of the Heptameron and secondly The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova (a four-volume bowdlerised version, as no printer could be found who would print the first text he produced!). The translations seem to be well regarded, at least at the time they were produced, but I am no judge on this.

If you ‘catch the bug’ with Machen, you will find his voice is in everything he has written, and you will probably want to read anything and everything, as I did and still do.

Don’t be put off by his politics, which tended to be Tory (liberal Tory, but still Tory) and traditionalist. I think these attributes prevented him from striking out unhindered into becoming a greater writer than he was. They made him too hidebound, and sometimes too cod (he had a second career as an actor, in which, I understand, his distinctive voice was the main draw). In all, he had three careers: author & translator, actor, newspaper journalist. Her followed these at different times, not consecutively, though he was always first and foremost an author. 

Mack [Donald M. Hassler] entertained some of the Machen Society people, and produced a book, Arthur Machen and Montgomery Evans, which I am ashamed to say I still have not purchased! I must do so.