Friday, December 23, 2005

Pleasure and Interest, Redux

Lots of charming afterthoughts and clarifications chez Bob these days, on the who'd-have-thought-it-vexing topic of pleasure and disinterest. (Even more this morning, it seems, with still more of those nifty pictures. Hey Bob, how do you get them to stay in the middle of a post? Mine always come out at the top.) Sadly, the question of pleasure seems to be dropping out of the discussion, in favor of topics like "materialism" and "selfhood" and "the Origins of the Enlightenment," which mostly make my wee eyes glaze. Let me see if I can drag the matter of pleasure back into the spotlight.

As you may recall, Bob illustrated his apothegm "Modernity is Disinterest" with a passage from Coleridge. In it, John Milton made the case, against a fellow Puritan, that one might savor the pleasures of a Papist cathedral despite the social and theological errors it houses and embodies. I know this debate first hand, come to think of it, from my college days, when I spent a summer in France and Spain. Every cathedral I visited provoked it, right in my own split-self breast, and I felt it particularly keenly during my visit to the oddly named "Sinagoga de Santa MarĂ­a la Blanca." (The name suggests some of the nasty history to be remembered during your visit.) Jacqueline Osherow's wonderful long poem in terza rima, "Views of La Legenda della Vera Croce," takes up just this topic as well, starting in a passage where she learns the proper Italian name for the picture called, in English, "The Torture of Judas":

I thought I heard the torture of the Jew
And was so stunned I played the thing again

(My Italian was, after all, fairly new
And the woman on the tape spoke very quickly
But she did say the torture of the Jew--

In Italian it's ebreo--quite matter-of-factly)
The torture of the Jew who wouldn't reveal
The locatin of the true cross
--I got it exactly--

Put in a lot of coins to catch each syllable
(I also heard the English, which said Judas),
All the while not looking at the rope, the well;

Instead, I chose a saintly woman's dress,
And angel's finger pointing to a dream,
A single riveting, incongruous face--

What was I supposed to do? They were sublime.
The Inquisition wasn't exactly news
And, while I did keep my eyes off that one frame,

I wasn't about to give up on those frescoes.
In fact, I saw them again, a short while after
And again soon after--in those heady days,

Trains cost almost nothing and a drifter
Could easily cover quite a bit of Italy,
Though I tended to stay in Tuscany. The light was softer,

And--probably not coincidentally--
It had a higher density than any other place
Of things that could dazzle inexhaustibly.

And I was insatiable, avaricious
For what--even asleep--a person can't see
From a slim back bedroom in a semidetatched house

Like every other house in its vicinity
On a site whose inhabitants had been wiped out
To make room for spillover, like my family,

From the very continent I would have dreamed about
If I'd had even an inkling of the mastery
Of what its subtlest inhabitants had wrought

When they weren't doing away with people like me....

"Modernity is Disinterest" means, in cases like this, something slightly different from a Kantian "disinterested aesthetic response": it means a willingness to admit and indulge in sensory pleasure in the face of ideology, of history, even of compassion. To give, if not the Devil, at least the limbic system its due.

So--does the word "disinterest" now start to wobble? Sensory pleasure is hardly "disinterested"; rather, it speaks the "interests" of our bodies, whether by this I mean a hard-wired, evolutionary predisposition to like sweets and fats and symmetry and certain ratios and proportions, or merely our unconscious or preconscious responses to convention and childhood training. At this level, pleasure means unfreedom, plays me for a sucker, even as it liberates me from whatever mind-forged manacles I have decided or been told to wear.)

OK: enough for now. Time to practice my harmony line on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," even if I refuse to admit that "we" were in fact in "Satan's power," let alone "gone astray."

Comfort & Joy, y'all--

Friday, December 16, 2005

Split Selves and Red Yidn

A nice comment this morning from Bob on my "split self" post:
Hey. Whoa. I didn't want to call disinterestedness or the kind of split we get from it a necessarily bad thing. I suppose I gave the big 'bad' example b/c I thought the 'good' side (setting aside prejudice, acting professionally, etc) was pretty clear. I mean, the kind of split we get from disinterest is amoral in itself. It can lead to good or bad things. And neither I nor Rosen (the anthropologist at Princeton) claim that the different subjectivity in Iraq is better than the split self (I suppose the word "whole" is loaded, but still...).
Maybe Mark and I did pile up on you, Bob, but my sense is that disinterested aesthetic pleasure, like so many other products of the Enlightenment, is in fact under attack these days, if not necessarily by you. Think of Bourdieu, whom you cited, whose work sets out to debunk the notion of disinterested pleasure. To him, such pleasures simply mask the true social pleasure at stake, which is the pleasure of reaffirming one's place in the educated bourgeoisie. Alas, such turns in intellectual history have consequences! My students, for example, have mostly been trained out of their natural-born curiosity; they profess no affection for books that aren't "relatable," which is to say, books in which they can take no interested pleasure. A true loss, and one worth mourning.

On a related matter, an interesting book review this morning in the Forward. There's a new anthology out that must be warming Cary Nelson's red, red heart: Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub, and translated by Amelia Glaser.
(It's a U of Wisconsin book.) To call these poets "rebels" is lamentable at best. They weren't rebels against the US so much as they were lackeys of Moscow, woodenly hewing to the Party line when their fellow Yiddish leftists--anti-Soviet socialists, and rebels worth the name--were doing their best to draw some fresh progressive water from the rapidly freezing Marxist well. Says the reviewer, Zachary Sholem Berger:
On the occasion of the Hebron pogroms in 1929, which the American Communist paper Di Frayhayt described (following Soviet orders) as a heroic Arab uprising against capitalist Zionism, many of Di Linke did not extract themselves from the Soviet embrace. (Katz's characterization of the "anti-Soviet" response, which condemned the riots, is tortured: "[T]he need to support the Jewish cause in these circumstances was metamorphosing the whole attitude toward Zionism from positive to negative.") Again, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, some of the poets in this anthology still didn't distance themselves from Soviet diktat. Katz wonders, in a faux-naive vein, why anyone would criticize a poet for leaving Di Linke (i.e., the Communists) at a later rather than a earlier point — that is, for admitting later rather than earlier exactly what Soviet ideology entailed. But isn't this just the political decision that defined these Communist poets? And if political affiliations mean anything at all, isn't it because they are at the foundation of actions that we can discuss and (whisper it) even judge after the fact? In avoiding an explicit analysis of the politics of Di Linke, this book tries to de-emphasize what these Communist poets found important about their lives: communism.
Berger makes some nifty comments about the poems themselves, and tosses of a useful reminder or two about political poetry on both left and right: "ven those who make grave political mistakes can achieve the occasional aesthetic success."; "Yiddish poetry also has its geniuses on the right-wing end of the spectrum of political mistakes: The work of Uri Zvi Greenberg is both hateful and virtuosic."

(Is pleasure in virtuosity interested or disinterested?)

A book to know about, especially if you're interested (so to speak) in poetry of the 1930s, but I'm not sure it's high on my Channukah list. For an introduction to Yiddish American poetry, you'd be better served by Jackie Osherow's recent essay here, which I'll blog about over on my Big Jewish Blog this afternoon or tomorrow. See you there!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Split Selves and Other Pleasures

I've been catching up on some other blogs this morning, and over at Bob's Samizdat site I came across a long, very readable, eerily resonant post called "Good Taste, Disinterest, and the Divided Self, with a Peroration Concerning the Doom of Iraqi Democracy." Whatever you may think of Bob's politcs--I find his "peroration" utterly unconvincing, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, but also blessedly irrelevant--this post is worth a quarrel, and a look.

Bob starts with a lovely epigram: "modernity is disinterest," which he expands into a description of the modern ethic of "disinterest and gessellschaft — of setting aside personal interests and convictions in a society of abstract, contractual relations. It makes for a very split self (the part of me with real convictions, and the part of me that performs a social role according to ethics determined by that role alone)." As Bob notes, this is a relatively recent notion of ethics, and one that leaves many folks in this culture, and even more elsewhere, quite uncomfortable. He goes on to quote a Princeton anthropologist, for example, who believes that "in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles — as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees — to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole."

(Those of you who have read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism will note that the intellectual ancestors of Bin Laden, et. al., took deadly aim at this split-self "schizophrenia" of the West, inspired in part by the fascist and other critiques that Western thinkers aimed at their own culture in the 1930s. Muriel Rukeyser hummed a few bars from that tune periodically too. Sure makes you pity all those crazy Iraqis risking their lives to vote today when we Westerners know that democracy can never work in their culture.)

But I digress. Let's get back to pleasure.

Bob traces the roots of this ethic back to "18th century theorizing about (of all things) good taste." Here's the money quote, and quote-within-a-quote, for your perusal:
The idea of the beautiful (and of taste in things beautiful) is deeply tied to the idea of disinterest in the main line of Western aesthetics from the 18th century on through the 20th century, and even in our time, for some die-hards. Here’s my favorite chunk of text for explaining the idea of a disinterested appreciation of beauty. This imaginary dialogue comes from Coleridge’s On the Principles of Genial Criticism, and serves (according to the students in my theory of lit seminar last semester) as a better example of Kant’s ideas than any examples Kant came up with:
"Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration for its beauty. We will suppose it too at that time of his life, when his religious opinions most nearly coincided with those of the rigid antiprelatists. P[uritan]: Beauty, I am sure, it is not the beauty of holiness. M[ilton]: True, but yet it is beautiful. P:It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at? M: Perhaps not! But still it is beautiful. P: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings, that wasted the labor and sbstance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile. M: I do. But still it is very beautiful. P: Think how many score places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children’s children, with the treasures so lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement. M: too true! But nevertheless it is very beautiful. P: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive popish and carnal spirit among the people. M: Even so!"

[In short,] matters of taste in the beautiful, in the view of Coleridge’s Milton (who speaks, somewhat anachronistically for a whole 18th and 19th century tradition in aesthetics) are to be judged without reference to our sense of utility or morality.
Now, Bob goes on from this to argue that the self-splitting we do when we make an aesthetic judgment greases the slide toward self-splitting in matters of ethics, so that "we’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics)."

I'm deeply, deeply skeptical of this. It seems to suggest that people who make other sorts of aesthetic judgments would act more ethically, or at least more consistently, in their other behavior. Is there any evidence to back that up? Haven't people in every time, every culture, found ways to behave truly horribly, whatever their aesthetic views, when greed or lust or love of power trump their moral codes? In which case, wouldn't the freeing-up of aesthetic judgment be one small step forward--a realization that the aesthetic and the ethical can be separated, so that we can enjoy more art, more music, more literature, without any real compromise in our behavior?

Or, to argue from another angle, isn't the "either / or" proposition here a false dichotomy? Don't we really tend to work through ratios, so that if the level of moral disgust is low enough we accede to beauty. What difference does it really make to the world anymore that Neruda was an unrepentant Stalinist, or that John Cage once hymned the morality of Mao's Cultural Revolution? But when the moral disgust flares higher, or strikes closer to home, we are less able to respond aesthetically. The case of Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" comes to mind: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion / ..../ Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day...." Etc.

Now, I can't enjoy any Baraka after that, and if part of me feels good about this anhedonia, another part knows that it's a loss, and neither kids itself that I'm a better man for those painless scruples. I'd be a little happier if I were able to read and enjoy Baraka perversely, precisely in the face of his politics and venom. ("Cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth"? You go, Amiri! Bring it on!) Hasn't happened yet, though.

There's an old poem from the 1980s, "The Museum Shop Catalogue," by John N. Morris, that addresses much of this. I can't find the whole thing anywhere in my files, but here are the stanzas that Helen Vendler quotes near the start of The Music of What Happens. I'll leave off with them:

The past is perfectly darling--
These pretty things that come along with us!
Mary and Siva house without oppugnancy...

Everything here has been imported
Over some frontier. At last
It is all a kind of art entirely.

And really they are just lovely,
Perfectly lovely, these things.
In vain do I deplore...

Mary and Siva
Accompany our lives.
Although a loneliness persists.
They are only beautiful now.

Which is to say, I suppose, that the split, disinterested self who finds art "merely beautiful" may be a sad and second-rate thing, but so is Western style capitalism and democracy. Both let you like things you really shouldn't, which is one of life's great pleasures. And both leave open more options for disinterested enjoyment and for more ethical, less disinterested behavior than any system or self I've heard about so far.

Two cheers for Split Selves! Hip! Hip!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

This Just In...

The (London, U.K.) Independent -- October 5, 2005
by Sarah Cassidy

Children are spending less time reading for pleasure because the relentless focus on tests and targets has squeezed storytelling and joy of reading out of schools, a five-year study by the education watchdog Ofsted has shown.

Many teachers no longer read poems or stories to their class because they feel guilty that they are "wasting valuable teaching time", the report, English 2000-2005, warned.

Instead teachers now regard texts as "a kind of manual" for teaching about "adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences", it concluded.

This had already had an impact on children who now regarded reading as a skill needed to pass tests or to get a good job rather than as something they might do for pleasure. The inspectors said it was vital for children to hear stories being read out loud because this was the best way for them to "develop a vocabulary and an understanding of narrative ... which they need ... in order to read with full comprehension".

Teachers also struggled to find the time to keep up with the latest children's fiction and so schools were forced to rely on the same books year after year.

"Teachers often make use of texts without adequately considering their impact upon the pupils," the study warned. "They appear to regard texts primarily as a means of teaching writing: a poem is mined for its use of
adjectives, metaphors and contrasting short and long sentences without attempting to engage pupils' personal response to the ideas and feelings it expresses.

"The text becomes a kind of manual rather than an opportunity for personal response to experience. This can then lead teachers to choose any text, irrespective of quality, instead of choosing the most appropriate texts for different purposes."

Inspectors warned that many schools were failing to promote the importance of reading for pleasure. Individual reading had often been squeezed out of lessons in favour of the group and whole class work, which had been given greater emphasis in the Government's literacy hour.

Most schools expect pupils to keep a record or journal of their reading, but the quality of these is mostly very poor, inspectors found. Pupils did not understand why they were expected to keep a record of the books they read when most teachers did nothing with them.

Teachers themselves told inspectors that "teaching reading has lost its fun" under the government's strategies. Staff were confused about how to meet government targets and prepare children for tests while still teaching an enriching curriculum, inspectors concluded....

Poetry Out Loud

I had lunch yesterday--a lovely "Croque Fromage," with good bleu cheese, as it happens--with the Programs Director of the Poetry Foundation, and got an update on their upcoming "National Recitation Contest," called Poetry Out Loud. The basic premise is pretty simple: high school students compete for cash prizes by memorizing and performing "great poems," chosen from an on-line anthology you can find here or from the smaller, print version that they are distributing; there's also a CD available of poems being read aloud by celebrities and so forth, although I suspect that students who are schooled in slam poetry can do a fine job on their own.

We're in phase 2 of the project--the Beta test? the Theta test?--which means that schools in all 50 state capitals will be encouraged to participate. Next year it goes fully national--but if you're reading this, and not in a capital, take heart: many state Arts Councils seem to be jumping the gun and inviting schools to join in across the state.

Oh, heck: let's just cut & paste a little information, shall we?

Poetry Out Loud

Resources: About the Program

Recitation and performance are major new trends in poetry. There has been a recent resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of rap music among our youth. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum by inviting the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class. The National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation have partnered with the State Arts Agencies to support the expansion of Poetry Out Loud, which encourages the nation's youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance. This exciting new program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.


In spring 2005 several thousand students participated in successful pilot programs in Washington, DC, and Chicago; this second phase of Poetry Out Loud extends the program to state capitals nationwide. Poetry Out Loud will be launched in high schools across America in the spring of 2006.


Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure. Beginning at the classroom level, winners will advance to the school-wide competition, then to the state-capital competition, and ultimately to the National Finals. We expect over 200,000 students to take part in Poetry Out Loud this year.

Each winner at the state level will receive $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington to compete for the national championship. The state winner's school will receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. A runner-up in each state will receive $100, with $200 for his or her school library. We will award $50,000 total in scholarships and school stipends at the National Finals for the winners.


Poetry Out Loud curriculum materials include print and online poetry anthologies, a program guide to help instructors teach recitation and performance, an audio CD featuring distinguished actors and writers, promotional and media guides, and a comprehensive Website. All curriculum materials will also be available for download on the Poetry Out Loud Website, which can be used by schools not involved in the official 2006 contest.

Poetry Out Loud materials will be sent to high schools in December and January, and participating schools will run the program January through March. (The program requires only two or three weeks of class time.) States will hold their competitions in April. Following the state finals, the National Finals will be held in Washington, DC, in May 2006.
I must say, I'm tickled pink by all of this, and not simply because the Chicago winner last year--who one by reciting Stein's "Susie Asado," by the way!--was the student of a former "Say Something Wonderful NEH Seminar" participant. You simply can't read a poem well aloud without getting to know the poem much more intimately--as sound, as structure, as emotional drama--than most of the high school essay assignments I have encountered would require. (Yes, this includes the AP test.) This is also a virtually free program; the only major costs involved would be the cost of getting each winning student to the next round of competition. The poems, the supplementary curricular materials, etc., are all on the house.

If you're reading this, and you teach high school, I'd say this is
worth pursuing. If you know a high school teacher or principal, pass it on.

On a related topic, please follow the new link to your left to Andrew Motion's spanking new (I think) "Poetry Archive." It's quite the site, as you might expect from a British Poet Laureate with the full resources of the UK behind him. It aims to be "the world's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work," and in my initial dip into the page I've heard poems read by Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Raworth, and Rudyard Kipling. (Yes, Kipling.) I'm keen on the way it's organized, with clickable resources for teachers, for students, for children's poetry, and with the ability to browse poems by theme and form, as well as by poet and by title. Evidently Motion will take you on a "guided tour," too, although I haven't accepted that particular offer as yet.

Now, something tells me that there are other audio archives I should know, or have known in the past. If you read this and think of them, send me the URLs, please. There's altogether too much peat a-growing on the links of this old blog.

Back on the Blog

If you read this, say hello.

Not that I've been in Tangiers, but I have been hither and yon these past few weeks. First I graded a stack or three of student papers and exams--gee, that was fun and a half!--the nadir of which must have been the essay which thought that Yeats' "When You Are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep" was about a prostitute. (The "fire" she's nodding by in stanza one is, my student hazarded, the fire of hell, which waits to punish her for the sexual promiscuity she displayed by letting so many men love her "moments of glad grace," nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Let's just say that when this lady would bend down "beside the glowing bars," all the drinkers at those bars got quite a show!) I've never actually wanted to advise a student to go out and get laid, then, damnit! before revising a paper, and I'm sure I never would, but this time, I came mighty close.

(By the way, Mark, if you need more evidence that an interpretation of a poem can be wrong, but wrong, I might just be able to snatch a copy of this one from the stack before my student picks it up. If she does. Which she probably, blessedly won't.)

I then hit the road to visit my brother and his family for Thanksgiving, down in Hudson, OH. While there, I worked some email mojo to get myself onto a conference panel for the first time in about five years. I left the circuit deliberately as soon as I got tenure. It was hard on my wife and kids for me to be gone, and other than the chance to hang out with friends, I saw no point to going. (Would it advance my career? Not really--I had nowhere I wanted to go! Would it introduce me to new ideas? Perhaps, but less efficiently than reading an essay or two.) Now that I have a new field to map and plough, though--Romance Fiction, hurrah!--I need to get out and hear what the discourse really sounds like, viva voce, to meet the relevant scholars (and, better, the irrelevant ones?), and generally to figure out my place in this new critical landscape. So off I go, this April, to the Popular Culture Association's national convention in Atlanta, to give a talk on Emma Holly at one of their "Eros and Pornography" panels. Yum.

Once I got home, I stuck with the Romance gig for another week or so. You see, the RWA (Romance Writers of America) sponsor a $5000 grant competition to foster the serious academic study of genre romance, and I decided months ago to apply. Keep your fingers crossed for me, everyone: I'd say that Teach Me Tonight (my proposed book on romance) sounds as fun to me to write as any of the poetry projects I've been kicking around for the past few years, and no less interesting, too.

In fact, reading romance novels "one by one," as I described it in my proposal, feels to me an awful lot like reading poems--or, at least, I find myself thinking about the two genres in more similar ways than I'd have expected before this project began. Thus, for example, as I read Eloisa James's latest, Kiss Me, Annabel, I found myself opining to the Missus that this novel's aesthetic was utterly different from that of, say, Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie. The Crusie aspires to what Helen Vendler calls "complete centripetal coherence"; every episode, every nonce touch (the nicknames, the snowglobes, the chicken marsala) has a complex but mappable connection with something else in the book, so that the whole has a kind of clarity and elegance of design that I quite enjoy. The James, by contrast, is proliferative, almost Rococco, in structure; it leaves loose threads a-dangling all over the weave, not least because it's part of an ongoing series of novels about a set of sisters, rather than a stand-alone text. If I knew more about soap operas, or at least the critical discourse around soap operas, I might be able to draw some connections; for now, I'd say that the Crusie feels like a single lyric, polished and ready for New Critical attention, whereas the James feels more like one sonnet drawn from a messy, maddening sequence, like the Rime Sparse, or maybe (l'havdil) like a single Canto?

Once I finished the RWA grant ap, I got busy with my stack of novels about poets--more on which later, I promise--and with a couple of very interesting poetry-related social engagements. More on both after some coffee and a big plate of salami & eggs, I think.