On drips


Detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christus am Kreutz (c. 1520-1522),  CC-BY 2.0.

Leaks have been in the news lately (and it might be interesting to think about why “leaks” became a term in English for improper disclosures of information in the 1950s, or how “blowing the whistle on” an activity used to imply also bringing the activity to a sharp conclusion), but, whereas leaks imply loss and injury, drips are more ambiguous.

Stanley Lombardo translates one of Sappho’s fragments (#37 in Campbell’s standard collection, but #64 in Lombardo’s version) as “in my dripping pain.”  Just that.  That’s the entirety of the fragment (although there may be a related piece).  “In my dripping pain.”  What might Sappho have meant?  Where was this verse leading?  Whose pain was being given a voice here?

Anne Carson, with more typographical license, and perhaps more focus on textuality generally, adds parentheses: “in my dripping (pain)” (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 75).  In a wonderful endnote, she points to three significant contexts for thinking about what Sappho might be doing here.  The first is its provenance: we have the fragment because an ancient etymologist was discussing words for pain.  The second is a line from the chorus in Agamemnon, describing their anxieties in the night: “And it drips in sleep before my heart / the grief-remembering pain” (Qtd. 365).  The noun Sappho uses for dripping is, Carson notes, cognate with the verb for dripping Aeschylus uses here.

Richard Lattimore translates the full strophe from which this line was taken as follows:

Zeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our will temperance comes.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace is somehow violent.

(Aeschylus II, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 26-27)

And here is Peter Meineck’s version:

He set us mortals on the road to understanding,

and he has laid down his law:

“Man must learn by suffering!”

Not even sleep can relieve the painful memories

that fall upon the heart, drop by drop,

discretion comes even to the unwilling.

The grace is forced upon us

by sacred spirits who reign above.          (Oresteia, 9-10).

I can’t adjudicate the accuracy of any of the translations, but I can see that Meineck’s offers a much clearer line of interpretation than Lattimore’s.  The “road to understanding” is what is laid down in the quoted law.  Suffering is the path to understanding.  Painful experience engraves itself upon the heart in ways that sleep (and by implication even dreams) cannot stop.  In a wonderful inversion, grace is “forced upon us.” (Was Yeats thinking of these lines when he was writing “Leda and the Swan”?).  “Sacred spirits” is a bit distracting to my ignorant ear: even in the plural, it brings “grace” too close to later Christian meanings that any translator is already hard-pressed to avoid, or make strange.

Lattimore’s translation, by contrast, is harder to make sense of, but is much more rhythmically striking and — at least on a first reading — impressively undecided.  That is, it has the sound of the Chorus still thinking things through rather than presenting a report of their conclusions.  The exact relationship between “thinking” and “wisdom” and “suffering” is not at all clear, however tightly linked they become in the mesmerizing prosody of “alone through suffering.”  Whatever its accuracy as a translation of the Greek, beginning the next line with “still” is a masterstroke for performance.  It opens up the possibility that the Chorus is itself here doing what Zeus laid down: thinking, suffering, attempting to bring its concrete experience to painful consciousness.  Likewise, I’m struck by Lattimore’s registering the confused hesitation in the chorus’s realization that grace is violent “somehow,” and his having pain teach not “discretion,” but “temperance.”

The sense of a drip-dripping sequence of pains tempering a body, giving it a particular texture and character, returns us to Carson’s gloss on Sappho’s fragment.  The other significant context she offers for “dripping (pain)” comes from Hamm’s lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

There’s something dripping in my head.


A heart in my head.

In Aeschylus, a somatically engraved anxiety contorts dreams and brings before the heart — the seat of soul and mindedness for the ancient Greeks — “grief-remembered pain.”  There’s more than a hint in Hamm’s lines of this sense of long-weathered, ill-comprehended experience carving his destiny.

But, of course, in Hamm, any such sense of his own fate is bathetically shrunk.  His line has the sound of the comically literal.  Maybe that’s all consciousness is: something dripping in the head.  All the lyricism of existential confrontation seems to be leached out of Hamm’s statement: it seems to be a bare attempt to describe the phenomenological sensation.  Of course, he doesn’t say it feels as if something’s dripping in his head.  Nor does he declaim it in a way that might give “dripping” a melodramatic, lurid cast, i.e. having the actor leap up onto the battlements, etc.  (In fact, as ever, Beckett’s scenic imagination — including here Hamm’s blindness and restriction to his chair — seems designed to prevent or dismantle such earnest declamations.)  What would it mean to have a heart in your head — and does Hamm mean something like a yearning soul or something like a mere pumping muscle?



That claim about 1910


Paul Cézanne, Medea (after Delacroix), c. 1879-1882.

Virginia Woolf gets a lot of grief for having claimed, with some to-be-debated level of irony, that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (Selected Essays 38).  This is often misquoted as a claim that human “nature” changed, sometimes by folks who should know better, but usually in the context of some self-regarding cocktail party dismissal of Woolf as being herself hopelessly snobbish and self-involved.  Harumph, they say, a few crazy paintings change our biological nature?  Indeed, what silliness.  Of course the fact that Woolf was carefully staging what she called her “intolerable egotism” for the benefit of the Heretics Society at Cambridge in 1924, and that her sense of “character” in this paragraph is a carefully qualified, but nonetheless savage assault on earlier novelists’ practices of characterization, usually goes unremarked.

Yes, for those of you who’ve read the essay (and if you haven’t, you should), she’s probably being gratuitously unfair to Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  And, yes, she’s probably being hasty (but this was 1924!) about lumping together the ungainly assortment of writers like Forster, Strachey, Lawrence, Eliot, and Joyce.  In hindsight, this generational distinction obscures as much as it illuminates.  And paradoxically the rise of Woolf’s own status as a canonical modernist has drawn attention to the women absent from her formulation: Mansfield and Richardson, but also, in different ways, Wharton, Loy, HD, and Stein.  Still, there’s something powerful about Woolf’s claim, and I think it goes well beyond misunderstandings of its seriousness.

In context, she was widening our understanding of what we do when we read “characters” in a novel.  Judging character, she suggests, is one of our most common activities.  It’s part of our everyday life and it ranges in intent and complexity from malicious but delicious gossip to sustained attempts to understand the inner workings of another person.  “It would be impossible,” she said (or writes that she said), “to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art” (38).  Notice how what sounds like a strident assertion at the start–it would be impossible–depends on a series of much more pragmatic-sounding qualifications.  Could you go for a year without trying to interpret someone’s character?  Can you really become a mature adult–whatever that means–without having some skill in guessing people’s motives and tendencies?  But before her assertion entirely dissolves into platitude, she makes what I think is a much more interesting claim that usually gets obscured by what follows:  “Our marriages, our friendships depend on [the art of character-reading]; every day, questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  So what is the sense of character in play here?

We might think that, if our marriages and friendships–and we might want to generalize here to all manner of our serious emotional and cognitive partnerships–if such significant relations depend upon reading it, then “character” might be the essence of another person.  Or, if like the Edwardians we’re entertaining doubts about Romantic claptrap about knowing “essences,” then we might take it to be the sturdy accumulation of sometimes contradictory but eventually conclusive empirical evidence about another person’s habits and proclivities.   “Character” would be the “deep” and consistent personality underlying a person’s ambiguous but ultimately superficial actions.  We might think that, but we would be wrong.  After all, as we are about hear, character can change.

I’m still trying to figure out for myself whether Woolf’s subsequent attempt at, as she says, “abstracting” her claim by looking to the change in the attitude of “one’s cook” is as rankly class-bound as it sounds, but, for the moment, I want to stay with the “character” side of her claim.  That is, I’m not interested in defending what seems to be her argument that because Wells (et al.) don’t pay much attention to middle-class women’s emotional lives, they’ve missed a fundamental shift in “human” character.  Clearly, as Raymond Williams (and many since) have pointed out, there’s a problem with regarding a “fraction” of human relations (i.e. Bloomsbury’s or Oxbridge’s raised eyebrow at their servants’ new uppityness) as somehow standing in for the whole (“The Bloomsbury Fraction,” in Culture and Materialism).  What I am interested in defending, or at least further exploring, is the last part of the sentence.  (I excuse myself for the moment from dealing with Woolf’s entirely subversive inclusion of “our business” as also one of the major forms of human relation that depend on — but this only “largely”!–on the art of reading character.  Thinking about the forms of character read in marriage and friendship versus business, in Britain in the 1920s or generally, would take at least a book to sort out.)  Against both the clichéd romantic ideas of “essential” character or more recent “disenchanted” views of character as an accumulated property, Woolf asserts that the importance of reading character comes from its ordinariness and its dailiness: “every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  What sorts of questions might these be?  How might our ad hoc, impromptu attempts to cope with them amount to a skill?

Woolf ends her talk by demanding that her audience (Heretics, but still, perhaps, deserving of a slap) not expect “just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment” of her famous example, “Mrs. Brown” (54).  “Tolerate,” she says, “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” (54).  She is partly alluding to what she calls Eliot’s “obscurity” and Joyce’s “indecency,” but here their methods have been subsumed into a larger call for an explicitly ethical form of attention.  The methods they discover, however distasteful or obsessive they seem to Woolf or her listeners, might open the way to “one of the great ages of English literature”–but only, Woolf says, “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (54).  How are the skills of character-reading, skills honed and created in response to different problems every day, connected to this ethical demand?  Would cultivating our ability to, as recent narratology has it, “read minds” really improve us?  Would it make us less likely to desert Mrs. Brown–or would it make us more likely to exploit her, as if she were another “problem” to be solved?

Odysseus Resting (I)


Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?

Sojourning settlers


E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together.  It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it.  But what sort of a claim?  Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership.  This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.

Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant.  In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4).  This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter.  He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property.  (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical.  But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.)  So is this a legal claim?   According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).

Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction.  For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis.  Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register.  Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you.  Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4).  The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”

the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

lam visage cubiste-1939

Wilfredo Lam, “Visage cubiste” (1939), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

At what point do Cubism and the various early twentieth-century avant-gardes intersect with “real” history?  In the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq War(s) era, it can seem as if earlier experiments with genre and medium are a luxury the world can no longer afford.  Fredric Jameson, with characteristically two-edged irony, calls modernism “our classicism” — suggesting that our nostalgia for those wilder forms of abstraction and performance is motivated by a bad faith that at once preserves and entombs.  What do we today, multi-national and polyvalent as we are, have to do with attempts to get at the essence of painting, or ethnicity, or embodiment?

I started thinking about this question while reading Aimé Césaire’s “Avis de tirs” (“Gunnery Warning”) from Les armes miraculeuses (1946).  Is this poem surrealist?  Or, like Lam’s face above, cubist?  Some combination of the two or something new?  First of all, I’m struck by the way Césaire knocks all the conventional interpretations of Dalí’s overfamously oozing watches out of my mind:

délacent avant temps

le corsage des versus

et la foudroyante géométrie du trigonocéphale

pour mon rêve aux jambes de montre en retard

pour ma haine de cargison coulée […]

And in Clayton Eschleman and Annette Smith’s translation:

unlace prematurely

the bodice of bolts

and the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

for my dream with the legs of a slow watch

for my sunken cargo hatred.

(The Collected Poetry, 89)

Césaire, somehow suddenly, translates all of surrealism’s infatuations with dream-machine technology and its semi-profound speculations about time into a more historically concrete experience: the material legacies of colonialism in Martinique.  What can sometimes seem to be surrealism’s apolitical associative anarchy or, worse, reactionary escapism, fleeing in all directions away from what is right in front of your nose, here instead constellates, pulling together a set of phenomenologically rich images with a history of “sunken cargo hatred.”

And notice that the speaker is talking about “dream-legs” or a dream “with” the legs of a slow watch, not a dream of a slow watch.  Césaire’s watch is the form, not the content — not the material being worked on, but the practice of working.

Revolutionary planetaria

starry night shoes

Surely Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting is one of the top candidates for thinking about what Benjamin called “aura.”  It’s splashed on billboards, coffee mugs, buses, and shoes.  It’s used to clinch TV dramas about depressed artists and to sell movies about perceiving the world “differently.”  I’d really like to be sanctimonious and turn my nose up at this kind of savage commodification of a work of art, but what happens when, as in the case of the shoes above (made by Arkham Prints), the reference is to an episode of a show (Doctor Whoabout Van Gogh and not quite to the painting at all?

At a certain point, an image becomes so ubiquitous that it’s hard not to perceive the world through its filter.  When I look up at the night sky, all these images of starry nights (in variously distorted hues and shades) come clustering into my awareness.  Maybe stories of time travel and adventure become part of what I see in the constellations, but there’s also a nagging sense that I’m supposed to see “another realm.”  Other people’s notions of beauty and genius and mental illness, which I don’t often share, crowd into the way the moment means for me.

But imagining that I could cut away all these kinds of associations and confront the night sky alone, in rational or geometrical isolation, is also a fantasy.  In one of my favorite short pieces, “To the Planetarium” (1928), Benjamin warns that the ancients and the moderns look to the stars in very different ways.  Whereas modern astronomy, after Kepler and Copernicus, places “an exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe,” the ancients’ “intercourse with the cosmos” required “the ecstatic trance.”

Characteristically, Benjamin swerves from this seemingly nostalgic insight (i.e. “dude, those Greeks really knew how to stargaze”) to give a startling gloss on what it means to experience this kind of trance:

For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other.  This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally (58).

For Benjamin, the spine-shaking experience of an ecstatic perception is inescapably social.

What does a life reveal?

holbein The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb_Detail

Detail from Hans Holbein, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-22)

Reviewing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Rowan Williams suggests it’s time to revisit the saint’s status as a “patriarchal villain.”  Augustine, Williams says, can be more to us than the source of the West’s deep structures of self-punishment.  Like Paul, Augustine created new ways of imagining another world, a better realm, beyond, somehow elsewhere but nearby, governed by other forms and practices of justice.

Garry Wills likewise points out what we would today call Augustine’s contributions to psychology and philosophy of mind, both of which Lane Fox tends to downplay in favor of a broad-stroke picture of late Roman culture.  From a modern point of view, it’s easy to read about Augustine or Augustinian ideas of original sin and see holdovers from late antiquity, but it’s much harder to read the Confessions without being struck by the entanglement of self and writing.  It’s a cliché to say that this entanglement feels “modern,” but I think this is a case where the cliché results from unthinking repetition rather than untruth.

William Franke argues that what the text of the Confessions has revealed to generations of readers is the process of “reading as revelation”:

[…] Augustine’s way of addressing God personally and questioningly provides what he is seeking by his very asking: for he asks that he be given to converse with God, to invoke and so to know him.  This self-validating conjuring of divinity by an apparently autistic linguistic act is tantamount to a discovery of God immanent within the self-reflexive faculty of self-consciousness in language. (The Revelation of Imagination, 239)

Brian Stock has also argued for Augustine’s invention of reading as a form of life.  Our acts of reading involve much more than passive reception or linear scanning.  We take signs as significant while also trying to keep open their potential for continuing (or changing) significance.  We want to pin down a meaning even as we want to keep open our experience of that meaning as something we could, sometime down the road, change our mind about.  There’s a creative integration at work in every act of reading we undertake, imagining the world of the words before us and testing the words we’ve learned by the measure of that new world.

But what happens if we compare the subject of the paradigmatic Confessions and shaping force on almost every subsequent would-be autobiographer in the West, with another, very different, sort of life?   With, for example, an anonymous anchoress who lived in a small cell adjoining St. Julian and Edward Church in Norwich for perhaps thirty years in the late fourteenth century?  (I happen to be teaching Julian this week, so she’s on my mind…)

The faithful from Norwich came to ask advice, but mostly they seem to have been seeking the comfort of knowing that someone could perfect a life devoted entirely to God.  Called “Julian of Norwich,” this anchoress’s Revelations of Divine Love are famous for suggesting that sins are somehow “behovely” (befitting, appropriate, or advantageous).  Like many strains of the Augustinian tradition, Julian regards vices as modeled on virtues: out of proportion or misdirected, but basically revealing important structures of our nature.

At the same time, like many later medieval responses to the Black Plague, Julian further regarded suffering from diseases and illnesses as a valuable source of knowledge as well.  Before she received her revelations, she had prayed seriously for serious, life-threatening illness.  Bodily dissolution and pain offered a way of imitating and understanding the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

What happens to reading–and to the meaning of a life in writing–under these more (pardon the pun) excruciating conditions?