Friday, January 16, 2009

City of David

This just up on Josh Corey's website: a poem by Allen Grossman, from his new book, Descartes' Loneliness:

City of David

Jerusalem is a grave of poets. Name
two who are buried there:
the poet Dennis Silk is buried there.
He lived with a dressmaker's dummy,
in a cave, on the Hill of Evil
Counsel due south of Zion Mount.
She bore him children
after her kind.—In any case, whatever
she gave birth to did not live.
Famous Amichai, also a poet,
is buried there. From his apartment on
the eastern slope you can see
a gate of the City, called David's Gate.
In '48, on a beach at Tel Aviv,
the poet Amichai held a dying soldier
in his arms. The soldier whispered—:
"Shelley." And then he died.
Poets built Jerusalem. Therefore,
poets have a duty to destroy
Jerusalem. If I forget thee,
the world will be better off.
The tree a cat can get up into,
a cat can get down from by itself.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"The Prehistory of Love"

"The Prehistory of Love." That's the title of chapter 3 in Paz's The Double Flame, assigned reading for my love poetry class this Monday.

Paz begins by reflecting on Greek poetry, which he finds as a rule "more erotic than [it is] amorous" (54). By which, he elaborates, it's a body of work in which "we see, and hear, the lovers in their different moods--desire, sensual pleasure, disillusionment, jealousy, ephemeral happiness--but never the sentiments and emotions of the Other" (55). There are no lovers' dialogues in this body of work, and love, for Paz, is essentially a dialogic, or at least relational, phenomenon.
  • As I told my class last week, it may well be that the most genres for love are drama and the novel, rather than lyric poetry. Is this a problem for my own future teaching the class, I wonder? Will I tire of teaching lyric, or find it frustrating, given my steady diet now of romantic fiction?
  • Or, conversely, might a lyric poetry that records, or at least registers, the Other's voice and subjectivity--through resistance, or active listening, or implied response--be enough to satisfy me, and him?
In any case, according to Paz the first texts that prefigure "what love was to be for us" come from Alexandria and Rome. "Love is born in metropolises." Lovely thought, for a city boy like me. (OK, I'm from the suburbs. But domesticity has a home there, surely--a split level, with shuffleboard court and wet-bar in the family room.) Why in cities? Because "in the Alexandrian invisible revolution takes place: women, shut up in the gynaeceum, come out into the open air and appear on the surface of society," making names for themselves in the political realm and in the city's burgeoning world of "tradesmen, craftsmen, and small property owners" (59). "The appearance, in the new cities, of a freer woman" is what allows "the erotic object [to begin] to transform itself into a subject" (610).
  • Love as such is born of women's rights and the rise of the middle class: sounds good to me, but I'm biased, I suspect.
  • I'm not sure if it's really about the "middle class," though. Paz speaks about the importance in Rome, a bit later, of "patrician women" and courtesans as the crucial figures. "Both patricians and courtesans were free women in several senses of the word: by their birth, their means, and their mores. Free above all because to an unprecedented degree they had the freedom to accept or reject their lovers. They were the mistresses of their bodies and their souls. The heroines of erotic and amorous poetry come from both classes (62-3).
Doubling back a bit:

To Paz, the first great love poem is a piece he calls "The Sorceress," Idyll 2 by Theocritus (circa 275 BC). Is it anywhere on line? Here's a prose translation by Andrew Lang. For Paz, this is the first poem to show "rancor and love conjoined...the inextricable commingling of hate and love, spite and desire" (56). The speaker of the poem, Simaetha, "is a commoner, a young woman such as exists by the thousands in every city of the world, ever since there have been cities" (57). To make such a woman the heroine--or at least central figure--of a major literary text "was an immense literary and hsitorical innovation" (60). She's struck by desire for one "Delphis," a young athlete who obsesses her, whom she summons to her house. He woos her, plies her with promises, and they go to bed. They're lovers for a short while, after which he disappears for two weeks, and reports come to Simaetha that he's now fallen in love with another, of one or other sex.

"Simetha's love," says Paz, "is made of persistent desire, despair, anger, helplessness. [...] Between what we desire and what we value there is a gap: we love what we do not value and we desire to be forever with a person who makes us unhappy. In love, evil makes its appearance: it is a pernicious seduction that attracts us and overcomes us" (59). We are, he says, "very far from Plato" (59).

The next poet he speaks of, moving from Alexandria to Rome, is Catullus, whose work looks back to Sappho and to the Alexandrian model supplied by Callimachus.

In Catullus's poems for the woman he names "Lesbia," a patrician that scholars have identified as one "Clodia," about whom Paz says absolutely nothing. (Hmmm...) Catullus's lyrics record the stormy relationship between himself and Lesbia; again, we find this "union of opposites--desire and contempt, sensuality and hatred, paradise glimpsed and hell endured" in which "our flesh covets what our reason condemns" (62). Together, the poems comprise "a sort of novel in verse (63) in which the male speaker is in a "situation of dependency" and the love plays out as "an exercise in freedom, a transgression, a defiance of society," although he doesn't spell out exactly how this is so (63).

Three crucial elements for modern love poetry emerge in these texts, says Paz: choice (the lovers are free, at least vis a vis social norms); defiance (love as a transgression), and jealousy. Paz jumps from Catullus to talk about the "fatal pearl" of jealousy in Proust, whom I've never read, alas; from this diversion, however, he makes his way to this lovely passage:
We live with phantoms, and we ourselves are phantoms. [That is, we're always imagining what's going on in each other's minds, making up stories about each other and indeed about ourselves, some of which are quite painful and self-tormenting.] There are only two ways out of this imaginary prison. The first is the path of eroticism, and we have already seen that it ends in a blind wall. The question of the jealous lover--what are you thinking about? What are you feeling?--has no answer except sadomasochism: tormenting the Other or tormenting himself. In either case the Other is inaccessible and invulnerable. But we are not transparent, either, for others or for ourselves. [...] The other way out is that of love: surrender of self, acceptance of the freedom of the beloved. Madness, an illusion? Perhaps, but it is the only door that leads out of the prison of jealousy. Many years ago I wrote: Love is a sacrifice without virtue. Today I would say: Love is a bet, a wild one, placed on freedom. Not my own; the freedom of the Other (66-67).
The next poet he discusses is Sextus Propertius, whose lyric poems of relationship with "Cynthia" are another "novelistic" account of "meetings, separations, infidelities, lies, surrenders, endless quarrels, moments of sensuality, passion, anger, morose melancholy" (68). He delights in the "modernity" of Propertius; he notes that Propertius is the first to write a love poem in which the beloved's ghost visits the speaker after her death (passed down, he writes, to "Baudelaire and his descendents" 71), and this leads him into a longish disquosition on a poem by Quevedo ("Amor constante mas alla de la muerte") and brief mentions of other poems by Baudelaire, Nerval, Novalis, and others.

A brief discussion of Greco-Roman novels of love: Daphnis and Chloe, in particular.

Some interesting thoughts about freedom in these texts. Not political freedom--that wasn't an option--but rather, in the face of monarchic rule, "political freedom was replaced by inner freedom," by which he means something like freedom in the private or domestic sphere: work, marriage, etc., as separated from the broader life of the polis. "Political duties, extolled by the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, are moved to the sidelines of society by the search for personal happiness, wisdom, or serenity" (85). Private virtues predominate, and private pleasures, including those that earlier philosophy thought of as an enslavement, like the pleasures of passion. We start to see the idea that marriage should be by the consent of the parties, even if the heads of the families still make the primary arrangements. Again, Paz insists, "the emergence of love is inseparable from the emergence of women. There is no love without feminine freedom" (85).

Love ends up being a form of "civil disobedience," not in the name of principle (as for Thoreau) but in the name of "individual passion" (87). He concludes this way: "love is born of an involuntary attraction that our free will transforms into a voluntary union. Voluntary union is love's necessary condition, the act that turns bondage into freedom" (87).

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thursday's Child

No picture today. You can find those yourself, if you need them. Instead, this, by a poet I've just discovered, and like quite a bit:

Travel Tickets

On the day you kill me
You’ll find in my pocket
Travel tickets
To peace,
To the fields and the rain,
To people’s conscience.

Don’t waste the tickets.

--Samih al-Qasim, trans. by Abdullah al-Udhari

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Paz On Love

Shoving politics out of my mind for a while. Back to Paz on love.

When we left off, Paz had just finished laying out the differences between sex and eroticism (see yesterday's post). In chapter 2 of The Double Flame, he moves on to another distinction: that between eroticism and love.

He begins with "one of the first appearances of love, in the strict sense of the word," in Western literature: the story of Cupid (or "Eros," as Paz calls him) and Psyche in Apuleius' The Golden Ass, from the late 2nd century AD. He's fascinated by what strikes him as "the real novelty of the story," which is that "a god, Eros, falls in love with a maiden who personifies the soul, Psyche" (29). Writes Paz:
I emphasize, first of all, that their love is mutual and returned: neither is an object of contemplation for the other; nor are they rungs on any ladder of contemplation. Eros loves Psyche and Psyche Eros, and very prosaically they end up marrying each other. There are countless stories of gods who fall in love with mortals, but in none of these loves, invariably sensual in nature, does attraction for the soul of the beloved play a role (29).
For Paz, the distinction between eroticism and love lies in this combination of mutuality and specificity. "Love is attraction toward a unique person: a body and a soul," he writes. "Love is choice; eroticism is acceptance" (32). [By "acceptance" he means, the book explains, a feeling like Molly Bloom's, in her closing monologue: "he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another." That's erotic, but it's not love, which at its most basic means "the passionate attraction we feel toward one person out of many" (34).]

Love is thus at once a subset of the erotic and a launching into realms well beyond it. "Without eroticism--without a visible form that enters by way of the sense--there is no love, but love goes beyond the desired body and seeks the soul in the body and the body in the soul. The whole person" (33).
  • Question: would this mean, then, that it's impossible to love someone one doesn't know in person? What about falling in love by letter, as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning seem to have done? "Do you think we should meet?" (That's not EBB, of course, but You've Got Mail, but the principle applies.)
Because love overlaps with the erotic, but cannot be reduced to it, it necessarily combines disparate, even opposing elements. "The attraction that the lovers experience must be involuntary, born of a secret and all-powerful magnetism; at the same time, it must be a choice. In love, predestination and choice, objective and subjective, fate and freedom intersect. The realm of love is a space magnetized by encounter" (33; my italics).
  • I emphasize "encounter" because it hints at the essential intersubjectivity of love, the fact that it demands the encounter of two independent subjects, rather than simply my delight in or attraction to some object of my desire. As Paz puts it, in love we witness "the transformation of the erotic object into a free and unique subject" (34).

  • This reminds me of the heartbreaking moment late in Lolita where Humbert Humbert suddenly glimpses the horror he's visited on the girl--now a young woman--he obsessively desired through most of the novel. For the first time, he sees her as a "subject," not an object; his remorse, however brief, is the closest he ever gets to actual love.

  • Which, in turn, reminds me that the story of Cupid and Psyche also features what is, for Paz, a three-part structure that will endure in Western love stories: "transgression, punishment, and redemption" (29-3o).
Denis de Rougement (and others) have claimed that this vision of love-as-encounter is exclusively Western, and indeed, even in the West, relatively recent, invented, so it's said, in 12th century Provence. Against this, Paz insists on the human universality of love as such.

"There is no people or civilization," he writes, that does not tell stories or sing songs about "the encounter of two persons, their mutual attraction, and the labors and hardships they must overcome to be united" (33). In some civilizations, at some periods, however, this core story gets elaborated into a full-blown ideology, "a way of life, an art of living and dying, an ethic, an aesthetic, and an etiquette. A courtesy, to use the medieval term" (34).

Now things get interesting!

"Courtesy," Paz reminds us, "is not within the reach of all: it is a body of knowledge and a practice. It is the privilege of what might be called the aristocracy of the heart. Not an aristocracy founded on bloodlines and inherited privileges, but on certain qualities of the spirit. Although these qualities are innate, in order that they be manifested and made second nature, the adept must cultivate his mind and his senses, learn to feel, speak, and sometimes remaind silent. Courtesy is a school of sensibility and selflessness" (35).

From the idea of "courtesy" he moves on to "courtly love," which is for Paz "a knowledge of the senses illuminated by the light of the soul, a sensual attraction refined by courtesy" (36). Examples of such love, Paz notes, can be found in the Islamic world (Persian and Arabic), in India, and in the Far East (The Dream of the Red Chamber, from China, and from Japan The Tale of Genji). This leads him to an interesting conclusion: "Whenever a high courtly culture flourishes, a philosophy of love springs forth. Those philosophies of love have the same relationship with the general feeling of love as this one [the general feeling] has with eroticism, and both of them with sexuality" (37).

Thus: "sex is the root, eroticism the stem, and love the flower" (38).


Some differences between East and West follow, and a few useful apercus.

In the East (the far east, he means), love is "conceived of within a religious tradition," whether Buddhist or Taoist. In the West, ever since Plato, "the philosophy of love lay outside official religion [pagan or monotheist] and at times was in opposition to it" (39).

"Love in the West is a fate freely chosen," which means that "no matter how powerful the influence of predestination--the best-known example is the love potion that Tristan and Isolde drink--in order for their destiny to be fulfilled, the cooperation of the lovers is necessary" (40).

"The history of poetry is inseparable from that of love" (43).

Paz gives a brief summary of the Symposium, which makes this book quite useful for teaching undergrads--you can get them up to speed on some crucial bits of cultural history in a single chapter, as you see.

He discusses the story Aristophanes tells about the original androgyne, with its ringing affirmation that "we are incomplete beings, and the desire for love is a perpetual thirst for completion" (43), but he points out that this is not Plato's final speech on the subject, and turns to Socrates' lesson from Diotima: "Eros is neither god nor man; he is a daimon...the preposition between defines him" (44). The child of Poverty and Abundance (or Plenty, or Resource, Poros is the Greek), Eros is "a mixture of several elements united and animated by desire" (45).

Now, as we all know, this disquisition (by Socrates, I mean) leads him to the ringing conclusion that "love is desire for the perpetual possession of the Good," or some such phrase. Love in Plato is therefore an "ascent": "it goes from the love of one body to the love of many, then from the love of all beautiful forms to the love of virtuous deeds, then from deeds to ideas and from ideas to absolute beauty, which is the highest life that can be lived" (48).

But, Paz notes, that's not love. That's Eros, or "eroticism," and stands in contrast to the mutuality and intersubjectivity that lie, for Paz, at the heart of love. He doesn't say that ancient Greeks never felt what we call love, mind you; he just says that they didn't make a philosophy out of it. "Diotima seems to know nothing of fidelity, and it never even occurs to her to give thought to the feelings of the man or woman we love: she sees the beloved as a mere step on the ascent toward contemplation. In reality, love for Plato is not strictly speaking a relationship; it is a solitary adventure" (50).

"For Plato, erotic objects--whether they be the body or the soul of the ephebe--are never subjects: they have a body and do not feel, they have a soul and remain silent. They are really objects, and their function is that of being stages in the ascent of the philosopher toward the contemplation of essences" (51).

Paz notes, astutely, that although the Symposium is in the form of a dialogue, it is in fact "made up of seven separate discourses": in this text, as in the version of love it describes, "there can be a dialectic, that is to say, a division of discourse into parts, but there is no true dialogue or conversation" (51-2).

"In the Symposium," he concludes, "eroticism in its purest and loftiest expression, the necessary condition of love--the other man or woman who accepts or refuses, who says yes or no and whose very silence is an answer--does not appear" (52).
  • A curious structure to this chapter, starting with the story that does illustrate love-as-such and ending with one that seems to...but oops, look again, it doesn't. I almost wish he'd have circled back to talk more about the Apuleius, and how the story of Cupid and Psyche illustrates love instead, just to clinch that in the minds of my students.

  • On the other hand, since we're about to turn to Sappho for a while, it's probably better to leave them with a taste of Eros in their mouths. We won't really reach love-as-such for a couple of classes, and there's an awful lot to say about th'erotic on the way.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tuesday's Child

7:03: "The purpose of awakening is black coffee." Alice Notley, "The Prophet"


Kids off. Bulgar pilaf with cranberries and almonds for breakfast; caught up on some romance reviews at Dear Author while it simmered. The new Lydia Joyce sounds promising.

Trying to imagine a site like Dear Author about poetry: not just a site with reviews, but one that gives, like, low grades to books. Is there something out there like that? If not, why not? What would the absence say about the differences between reading poetry and reading genre fiction? (Poetry, too, after all, a "genre.")

Has anyone who studies fandom ever turned his or her attention to poetry readers? I suspect there's a good deal to be said from that perspective: the passion, the depth of knowledge, the feral infighting...


Spent too much of my first day back at school restlessly checking news from Gaza, and it tugged at my attention today as well. The latest horror--30 or 40 civilians killed at the UN school where they were taking shelter--haunts me, and reports that Hamas gunmen were firing from the school, in which they'd barricaded themselves, booby-trapping it first, makes things worse, not better. (It's entirely believable, but sadly no more so than any other explanation.)

Those poor children--so many, and more to come.

Muriel Rukeyser's little poem from 1939 keeps running through my mind:
M-Day's child is fair of face,
Drill-day's child is full of grace,
Gun-day's child is breastless and blind,
Shell-day's child is out of its mind,
Bomb-day's child will always be dumb,
Cannon-day's child can never quite come,
But the child that's born on the Battle-day
is blithe and bonny and rotted away.
Sorry so glum, but what can you do? Brant Rosen reposts an interview with Israeli geographer Arnon Soffer, one of the idea-men behind the original Gaza pullout, back on May 21, 2004:
...when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill.
In case you couldn't tell, he's not saying that as a warning (like, let's not let this happen). He's just planning ahead. "The only thing that concerns me," says he, "is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings."

I am sickened and ashamed.


Anyway, I did my best to keep my attention elsewhere a while this morning. For the love poetry class, I'm rereading Octavio Paz, The Double Flame, chapters 1 and 2, along with Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet. The goal is to gather a shared vocabulary for talking about love (and desire, and related matters) as the course begins. Paz starts by setting up an analogy between poetry and eroticism:
"The relationship between eroticism and poetry is such that it can be said, without affectation, that the former is a poetry of the body and the latter an eroticism of language" (2).
How so? Well, eroticism is "sexuality transfigured," in which "imagination turns sex into ceremony and rite," just as imagination, in poetry, turns "language into rhythm and metaphor" (3). Eroticism makes sexuality "say" something more than reproduction, so that pleasure (and aggression, and any other element of sexuality) becomes an end in itself. Likewise, "in the poem...language deviates from its natural end, communication" (4). The language of poetry circles around, looks back on itself, aspires to shapeliness rather than simply to clarity. Thus "Poetry puts communication in brackets in the same way that eroticism brackets reproduction" (5).

The implications of this? "St. John of the Cross did not wish to say anything that departed from the teachings of the Church; nevertheless, his poems said other things" (5). Poems always (at least potentially) say something more, something other that what is intended or what is useful, socially speaking. "There is always a schism between social and poetic expression: poetry is the other voice," says Paz (6).

Paz distinguishes love from eroticism, and both of them from sexuality.

"Sex is the primordial source. Eroticism and love are forms derived from the sexual instinct: crystalizations, sublimations, perversions, and condensations which transform sexuality, very often into something unknowable" (7). Eroticism "is sexuality socialized and transfigured by the imagination and the will of human beings" (8).

First Paz talks about the imagination's role. "Eroticism is invention, constant variation; sex is always the same." This multiplicity inheres in the nature of the erotic: "in every erotic encounter," says Paz--even in our most "solitary pleasures"--there is "an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire" (9).

He then discusses the social side of things. Sex as such, he says, threatens society: it's "like the god Pan," at once creative and destructive; it "ignores classes and hierarchies, arts and sciences, day and night--it sleeps and awakens, only to fornicate and go back to sleep again" (10). [Ah, those were the days!] Human cultures invent taboos, prohibitions, inducements: eroticism includes both "repression and license...sublimation and perversion"; it generates cultural production, from laws to rites to arts, around the twinborn poles of "abstinence and license" (11-12).

Writes Paz, "Every great historic religion has given rise, on its margins or at its very heart, to sects, movements, rites, and liturgies in which the flesh and sex are paths to divinity. It could not be otherwise: eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness. And the supernatural is the supreme otherness" (15).
  • This will set up one of our recurring topics: the relationship between sacred and secular love poetry, and by extension the relationship between sacred and secular love.
Paz then turns from religion to its inverse or mirror image, "libertinism." A longish disquisition on libertinism, which in my experience is as foreign to students as sexual rites and liturgies. In the 18th century, "the libertine was the intellectual critical of religion, laws, and customs," and "libertine philosophy turned eroticism into moral criticism" (22).

Sadly, that "moral criticism" ends up preaching its own rather nasty moral vision, at least to Paz:
"For the libertine the ideal erotic relationship means absolute power over the sexual object, and an equally absolute indifference toward its fate; while the sexual object is totally complacent toward the desires and caprices of its lord" (22). As a result, "the libertine turns everything he touches into a phantom, and he himself becomes a shade among shades" (24).
  • This from Sade, of course, whom I haven't read since high school. Does it have any bearing on the actual behavior of anyone else?
Thank heaven, Paz has no taste for Sade. "A prolix and dull writer," he calls him, "the opposite of an artist" (24). He prefers Shakespeare, Stendahl, even Freud, "a man of science and a tragic poet" (25). He gives the last word in the chapter to D.H. Lawrence, who envisions, through eroticism, a "return to the place of origin, where death and life embrace," as in the poem that he quotes, "Bavarian Gentians."

So much for sexuality and eroticism (chapter 1), what of love? More on that anon.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Start as you mean to go on--

Pancakes, mimosas, Mistress of Mellyn, Andrew Lawrence-King on the wire-strung harp. Nathan sleeping in, but Margaret up, debating the merits of various romance heroes & heroines with my wife.

Dodging news from Gaza for a while.


Bought a red Moleskine notebook to keep track of my reading this year. So many "best of" lists by friends; maybe this way I'll have one to post next December. Should it only be for reading, though? Music? Whiskey? Brands of chocolate stout? (Young's for my birthday a week ago; now we're on to Brooklyn Brewry.)


Today's poem? In honor of the news, how about "Rita and the Rifle," by Mahmoud Darwish? Rita was a young woman--an Israeli Jew, as it happens--that he loved in his youth; the poem was turned into a wildly popular, much-loved song by the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife. You can find the original Arabic here; after the English, below, I've pasted a performance of the song, one lick of which sounds oddly like the 50's ballad "Mona Lisa" to my ears.
Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle
And whoever knows Rita
kneels and prays
to the divinity in those honey-colored eyes.

And I kissed Rita
When she was young
And I remember how she approached
And how my arm covered the loveliest of braids
And I remember Rita
The way a sparrow remembers its stream
Ah, Rita
Between us there are a million sparrows and images
And many a rendezvous
Fired at by a rifle.

Rita's name was a feast in my mouth
Rita's body was a wedding in my blood
And I was lost in Rita for two years
And for two years she slept on my arm
And we made promises
Over the most beautiful of cups
And we burned in the wine of our lips
And we were born again.

Ah, Rita!
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes from yours
Except a nap or two or honey-colored clouds?
Once upon a time
Oh, the silence of dusk
In the morning my moon migrated to a far place
Towards those honey-colored eyes
And the city swept away all the singers
And Rita.

Between Rita and my eyes--
A rifle.

Here's to a good year--and Lord knows there's plenty of room for improvement!