Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Pleasure, Difficulty, Mystery

A useful set of musings this morning over at Josh Corey's blog, "Cahiers de Corey," on a topic I've wrestled for years: the pleasures of "difficult," in this case mysterious poetry.

Josh starts with a passage by one Alain Badiou, from a book I don't know called Handbook of Inaesthetics. Here's the quote: "As for the enigma of the poem's surface, it should really serve to seduce our desire to enter into the operations of the poem. If we give up on this desire, if we are repelled by the obscure scintillation of verse, it is because we have let a different and suspect wish triumph over us—the wish, as Mallarme writes, 'to flaunt things all in the foreground, imperturably, like street vendors, animated by the pressure of the instant.'" (30)

This, I don't like. It has that awful classist moralizing tone, not all through, but in a few crucial touches: for instance, why on earth is the "different" wish a "suspect" wish, and what does it really have to do with street vendors, anyway? Even the obligation imposed by the first sentence, where enigma "should really serve to seduce our desire," puts the burden of seduction in a very odd place. Imagine a person saying to you (insert bad French accent here): "Mais cherie, mon enigmatic behavior should really serve to seduce your desire, non?" Hel-LO, Alain! Wake up and smell the cafe au lait. If your enigmatic poet-friend wants to seduce me, tell him to go right ahead, but chiding me that I shouldn't let a different and suspect wish triumph over me won't get me in the back of anybody's Bookmobile.

Josh, thank goodness, does a far, far better job. "Why are some of us seduced by enigmatic surfaces while others rush to denounce them as fraud?" he asks himself. "I myself don't really "get" a lot of [Clark] Coolidge...but my first impulse is not to shout, 'The emperor has no clothes!'" Pourquois pas? He gives two reasons, both of which make wonderful sense, and both of which have important pedagogical implications.

First this: "For me, books like Coolidge's The Crystal Text or At Egypt have a kind of that the distance they establish from more transparent texts inspires a kind of wonder, and a desire not to violently pierce the mystery but to accept its invitations."

"Aura" is precisely the word, I think, especially in Walter Benjamin's sense of the term, from "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction." "Aura" to Benjamin is our sense of "a distance however close [the thing] may be": an air of "unapproachability" which reminds us of the origins of art in ritual and magic. Aura recalls and reinscribes the original "cult value of the work of art," and with the rise of mass and middle-class culture in the 19th century, poets like Mallarme invented a new, mysterious, difficult poetry in order to preserve that aura, that old sanctity: to save art from the crass desires of all those awful street vendors (among others). Says Benjamin: "At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l'art pour l'art, that is, with a theology of art." Hence the loosely theological language that Josh invokes: "a kind of wonder," and a desire to "accept the invitations" of this "mystery."

(NOT a "mystery" to be solved, mind you. No Lord Peter, no Sherlock Holmes, need apply! That's "mystery" in the spilled-religion, vaguely Catholic sense of a "mystery of faith," or a pagan "mystery religion": a gnosis for agnostics. Isn't it?)

Pedagogically speaking, this notion of "aura" doesn't come up in many textbooks, but it matches precisely the "high church" tone of Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, which is a book to know.

Josh's second point, which is even better, turns from mysteries to practicalities. "Not the least of such poetry's demands and pleasures," he continues, "is a slowness that most of us feel we can ill afford in a time where efficiency is elevated to an ideal. Not to feel like we already understand everything is the gift of a difficult poem. Which is not to say that I don't respond more viscerally to poems whose pleasures are at least partially attuned to my own eye, ear, and education—but if that's all they cater to they will be quickly exhausted."

This is a wonderful point, I think--and one that we can all, as teachers, take to heart. If our students, when our students resist "difficult" poetry, they do so in part for the very good reason that we're asking them to read such work on the wrong schedule, and in the wrong key. To read The Crystal Text or a lyric by Montale or Stein's Lifting Belly for a class is, more often than not, to read it in a crisp, efficient context of weekly assignments or things to be mastered ("will this be on the test?"), when such poems assume, demand, or respond to (pick your verb) a utopian context: "mais cherie, we 'ave all ze time in ze world..." Back to aura here: such texts assume a time-out-of-time comparable to religious ritual, and lose their efficacy as surely as a service (mass, minyan, take your pick) spent watching the clock.

Now, I'm probably a dozen years or more older than Josh. I have a busy schedule: the wife, the kids, volunteering, the job (in descending order of importance?). I'm also steeped, up to my punim, in actual religion-religion, as I wasn't two decades ago. For all these reasons, perhaps, I have less and less patience, less and less interest, in poetry that asks these things of me--AND I'm more sympathetic to busy students who have the same response. With such busy dance cards, my students and I are all harder to seduce, less likely to accept the invitations of "mystery," than we might be. That doesn't make us suckers for "street vendors," though. We just have the shopping to do.

1 comment:

Norman Finkelstein said...

Eric, I'm somewhat troubled and definitely provoked by this post, which is, of course, a good thing. First, I think we have to put the remark by Mallarme in its historical context: it comes at a time when the tension between artist and bourgeois philistine was real, and so I'm not very troubled by the classism or moralizing. The idea of the artist or aesthete as part of a spiritual elite is not necessarily so bad a thing, as long as it's coupled with a real educational effort.

And speaking of education, it seems to me that one thing we can offer our students is the idea that poetry can provide, if not a sense of spirituality (god I hate that term!) for those among us who are not satisfied with conventional religious experience, then at least a sense of inwardness, mystery, aura, etc. You mentioned teaching Keats a while ago: "Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity." The time-out-of-time quality in those lines can't be beat. Today, that quality is often found in very enigmatic work, which we can open up for our students so that they may see an alternative to the workaday world--even if it's going to be on the test.

All this is in shorthand, as it were, but I trust you get the gist of it.