Virginia Woolf at Night

Leonardo_portrait-silverpoint

Well, no, the image above is not a portrait of Virginia Woolf. I suppose, properly speaking, it is not even a portrait per se, but is simply one of Leonardo’s many studies drawn in silverpoint as he collected figures he thought he might use one day in a painting—or perhaps to  capture an expression, a cast of mouth, a glance that he saved for later use in his art. His days were long before there were any means of preserving what was seen—except by marks made by hand. This drawing is obviously unfinished, both insofar as her hair, shoulders and back are mere sketches, and also as her left eye is somewhat too large relative to her right eye. From our contemporary point of view, the drawing is masterful, immediate and expressive—and worth a fortune. But there is no indication that Leonardo considered it up to his standard for the serious business of his art. It is just a study, like the many others he has crammed together on scraps of paper, and in his notebooks, of old men, hags, grotesques, young men and women, anatomy lessons, and far-fetched inventions. 

Virginia Woolf, for her part, and in service of a different art form, worked on her human studies in her Diary. She favored writing while seated in an easy chair with a writing board in her lap. She used an ink bottle and a steel-tipped dipping pen, and wrote by hand at considerable speed without making corrections, editorial revisions, or authorial re-considerations. It is in this sense of immediate impression that I mean to emphasize when I call her Diary a daily series of studies: she is sketching her conjectures of people, in a prose style instant and unpondered, using diction that occurs to her on the spot, at that moment, to express ideas she is capturing just as fast as she can write them down.

Those contemporary readers new to her Diary might be most interested, at least at first,  in her observations of famous people. For example, the first time she met T.S. Eliot occurred on November 15, 1918, and she writes: Mr. Eliot is well expressed by his name—a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted to it. Beneath the surface, it is fairly evident that he is very intellectual, intolerant, with strong view of his own, & a poetic creed. Here is a penetrating estimation of Eliot’s character, formulated over a half-hour social exchange, which remains prescient even after a further century of research into the poet’s letters, prose writings, poetry and biographical study. As she indicates, she sees through surfaces, however refined, and incisively sums up what she finds hidden down there.

She is delighted by social absurdities, such as an exchanged conversation told to her when King George V, during a Royal visit, at one point turned  & asked Princess Victoria where she gets her false teeth. “Mine”, George exclaimed, “are always dropping into my plate: they’ll be down my throat next” Victoria then gave a tug to her front teeth, & told him they were as sound as could be—perfectly white and useful. Even in an era of personal disclosures among American political figures, whom you’d think would know better, comparisons of false teeth are pretty funny. In this vein she also reports discussions regarding self-abuse, incest and the deformity of Dean Swift’s penis.

More commonly she relates the quotidian ebb and flow of English life around her. And though she is not a naturalist, she does write frequently in the early years of her Diary about the full moon—though probably not for reasons you might imagine. She begins her journal in January, 1915, stops it six weeks later on February 15th, (for reasons I’ll get to later) and then resumes it again in earnest in October 1917. During these years, the First World War was raging, and German airships—chiefly zeppelins at that time of the war—floated across the English Channel to bomb London when the city might be illuminated by moonlight. Without the moon, nighttime visibility was impossible, insofar as the lights in the city were otherwise blacked out. In a characteristic entry, Virginia wrote on October 22, 1915  that “The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole [caused by a bomb detonation] in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison…Windows are broken according to no rule; some intact, some this side, some that.

On December 6th, the moon rose later, after 11:00pm, so the zeppelins did not arrive until 5 in the morning: I was awakened by L[eonard] to a most instant sense of guns: as if one’s faculties jumped up fulling dressed. We took clothes, quilts, a watch & a torch, the guns sounding nearer as we went downstairs to sit with the servants…wrapped in quilts in the kitchen passage…Slowly the guns got more distant, & finally ceased; we unwrapped ourselves & went back to bed. In ten minutes, there could be no question of staying there…Up we jumped, more hastily this time….In fact one talks through the noise, rather bored by having to talk at 5 a.m. than anything else. Guns at one point so loud that the whistle of the shell going up followed the explosion. Cocoa was brewed for us, & off we went again. Having trained one’s ears to listen, one can’t get them not to for a time; & as it was after 6, carts were rolling out of stables, motor cars throbbing, & then prolonged ghostly whistlings, which meant, I suppose, Belgian work people recalled to the munitions factory. I have never been bombed, never had to flee the prospect of floating airships intentionally dropping high explosives on me to wipe me out, and devastate my habitable city. But if I ever am to be bombed, I hope I have enough courage and civilizing imagination to allow hot cocoa, shared among companions, to assuage my anxieties.

As I suggested earlier, most of her entries center on human observations in situations when she is not actively under fire. Here is one of many attempts to register the points of character of Lytton Strachey—a friend, and the author of Eminent Victorians: He is one of the most supple of our friends; I don’t mean passionate or masterful or original, but the person whose mind seems softest to impressions, least starched by any formality or impediment. There is his great gift of expression, of course, never (to me) at its best in writing; but making him in some aspects the most sympathetic & understanding friend to talk to. Moreover, he has become, or now shows it more fully, curiously gentle, sweet tempered, considerate; & if one adds his peculiar flavor of mind, his wit & infinite intelligence—not brain but intelligence—he is a figure not to be replaced by any other combination. She is writing about mere friendship here, which she considers at length, with sustained perception. She is not casual about her friends, but derives a nourishing pleasure from them, and with them, which does not diminish over time, but is consequential, and abiding in substance. She can be vigorous, humorous, entertaining, frank, unsparingly critical—but never trivial.

With that said, she was not merely concerned to write about friends in her Diary, and about people in high society, but she was interested in everyone. In Spring of 1917 she and Leonard were able to buy their printing press, which they set up at Hogarth House (Hence Hogarth Press), and thereafter spent some time trying to hire people to help them set type. Every single letter, punctuation mark, and space between words had to be set by hand, which required sustained attention to detail, and a certain strength of mind against tedium—which was not possessed by everyone who applied for the job. Barbara was one such person: Happily no apprentice today, which gives us a sense of holiday. We have had to make it rather clear to Barbara that this job may not be followed by another. She refuses payment for last week. So there’s no fault to find with her. No one could be nicer; & yet she has the soul of the lake, not the sea. Or is one too romantic & exacting in what one expects? Anyhow, nothing is more fascinating that a live person; always changing, resisting, & yielding against one’s forecast; this is true even of Barbara, not the most gifted of her kind. Virginia is never one to pull punches, which makes her obvious empathy and delight all the more authentic. Nothing is more interesting than a live person.

It is worth noting that she did not extend that interest toward introspection. She writes about others, not herself. That stoppage I mentioned in her Diary starting in mid-February, 1915, was prompted by her descent into a particularly virulent lunacy. On Monday, February 15th, she writes with her usual perspicacity about the people she encounters in the London shops, meeting Walter Lamb by chance, and rambling down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases & incidents to write about. Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed. The very next day on the 16th she had a headache, which heralded her slippage into madness. By the first week in March she required professional care, and for months thereafter she was incoherent, violent against herself and others, and so densely insane that professionals and family alike doubted she could ever return to anything resembling a normative state of mind.

She did return, of course, and resumed writing her Diary in early August 1917. However, she never provided a single solitary word about the reason she lapsed in her daily discipline of keeping her Diary. She never mentions that she had a break in her sanity, never made an observation about the nature of her mental state, no word to characterize the quality of her consciousness, no statement of what it felt like, no memories of delusions, no lamentation about lost life during those awful months, no promises, no allusions, no apologies to others for her behaviors, no regrets for the harm she inflicted on other people. No mention whatsoever. One day in 1915 she writes about touring London shops for books, and the next entry on October 8, 1917 in her Hogarth House Diary she begins with another accidental encounter with Walter Lamb in London. A seamless continuity belying the one-and-half years silence.

Her creative imagination, even in her personal Diary, operates on principles quite other than contemporary intentions and aesthetics. At the bookstores we now have our choice among works focusing at length on lawn sprinklers in the author’s childhood, professors analyzing their lives among students and fellow teachers. IRL Streamers entertain their audience in realtime with attempts to pick up young women encountered on the street. Being offensive is the point of the entertainment. Virginia Woolf in her private, unpublished moments thinks about people who are other than herself. Apart from the healthy display of empathy, what a basis this is for a political stance.

Language Isn’t What You Think

PART I

     When you think about it, the evolution of language is a compelling topic for literary folks, and ought to be required study for literary critics. People have an innate capacity for language. The neurological center—what we might by analogy call the cellular “processor”—lies in an organized nucleus of cells in that part of the brain right behind your left ear. Language is not a town-made capacity: it is hard-wired in, as are the other senses, such as eyesight, for example. Our vision has evolved to detect a useful, finite spectrum of electromagnetic radiation emanating from the outside world. Using eyesight, we can detect important things out there: I can see the prey I want to kill and eat, notice the vegetable world from which to select edibles, ogle the other members of my species with whom I long to mate. 

     There are those of us human beings, of course, who have preferred to mate with other species than our own. The example of shepherds lying with their sheep is Biblical in scope, and I myself have known a particular farmer who would have sex with one of his cows. The give-away was the animal hair and fecal matter spread all down the front of his overalls. And as I recall, Governor Winship in the Plymouth Colony hung one of the original pilgrims for having sex with a turkey. They also hung the turkey, which is sadly, grimly humorous. Those first pilgrims meant business.

     With all this acknowledged, no one would say that the interspecies sex was a consequence of poor eyesight. They could see what they were doing, make selective choices among alternative beings in the world—because their capacity for vision referred to a material world existing outside of their mental activity. 

     You can maybe imagine language acting in a similar way. Spear in hand, you and your companion are out hunting for a wooly mammoth to kill, when the guy beside you abruptly yells ‘Run!” or something similar. In this way language might be immediately useful, multiplying the scope of the other senses, which have also evolved to respond to environmental events. The immediate assumption might be that the language has expressed the need for intelligent, discriminant behavior, quickly executed in the material world, in response to changing material conditions. It wouldn’t do, for instance, to run toward the source of threat—and in fact, if your companion took the necessary time to do the thing rightly, he might yell “Run from the charging mammoth directly to our right.”

     The immediate assumption might be that the eyesight detected something in the environment to which the imperative linguistic product referred—and referred as well to the speed of the approach, to the direction from which it was advancing, and perhaps even to the intended mayhem that the advance suggested.

     Those philosophically minded hunters for whom language did not refer to any referent, for whom no real ‘signified’ existed behind the ‘sign’, might prefer to deconstruct the etymology of the verb ‘run’, to quibble with the definition of ‘mammoth,’ or to be concerned about the inaccuracy of the word “right.’ However, that misconcept of language would carry its own sad correction, and our brainy hunter would not live to reproduce either with his own species, or with any other preferred choice.

     These days, those philosophically minded hunters roam through many university literature departments—where they are also about to become extinct, I fear. But that is the subject of another conversation.

PART II

    “ If I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again.”

      I have already asked you to imagine yourself as a neolithic hunter roaming around, spear in hand,  and using language to negotiate dangers originating in the natural, unconstructed world. This time I’d like to imagine something a bit more probable: that we are contemporary neuroscientists. As such, we can acknowledge our incredulity at post-modern language theory—because we are starting with a different concept of evidence, and indeed with a different conceptual pedigree entirely. As scientists we are looking at the neurological bases of behavior, the source of which is an organ—the brain—that has evolved over immensities of time, in response to uncountable numbers of environmental interactions, so that its capacities are determined according to its fit in its material niche. There are other niches, but we do not fit in them: for instance, we cannot breathe too good under water, we cannot eat bamboo for any length of time and survive, we cannot in arid places go for months without water. It is up to other animals to fill those niches.

     We inhabit the niche we are designed to inhabit—which makes good tautological sense.  I have more to say about this topic, but because I am at heart a shy and modest person, and so do not want to flash my naked, unseemly nerdism, I have provided links to brief lectures: one regarding the neurological areas in the brain responsible for language (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFGmCRc0njk); the other regarding a neuroanatomical area that coordinates our mental and physiological rhythms—called circadian rhythms—with the cyclical presence and absence of sunlight (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43E6Q7a8X68).

     What these links will do is provide some evidence—as well as further links to the world of other related evidence—that I am not just making this shit up. The entire worldwide community of neuroscientists believes from vast experimental evidence that, down to the most intimate neurophysiological degree—down into our very cells—, we are tied to events in the natural world around us. And language, as a neurologically wired capacity, is a feature of that linkage. As thinking, speaking human beings, we are as totally synched to the events in the natural world as our iPhones, Droids and iPads are synched to our computers.

     Post Modernism has a briefer pedigree: perhaps if we stretch things we can extend it back to Kant and his belief that the noumenon cannot be understood, but we might all feel more confident with a less ambitious lineage extending from Nietzsche through Husserl and Heidegger into Levinas, Barthes and Derrida, then forward to the current intellectual heirs. This is a Continental heritage, and works most persuasively with Continental languages. The way in which Kanji, for instance,  purports to refer to its signified clearly works on principles that are not well-characterized by Western examples. 

     But even with the continental tongues, the referent to which a sign points is not commonly in question. If, for instance, I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again. Some of you might even catch the intentional allusion to Keats. Further, if we were honest among ourselves, we would recognize that the books and articles Derrida has written were published with the particular intent to communicate his ideas, regarding which he worked with discernible effort to convey accurately. If you happened to attend one of his lectures at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught in his later years (and from which, I blush to confess, I graduated) you could have enjoyed his personal, extended, elegant use of language as it was classically conceived—and even ask in interrogative sentences what he meant by the ‘trace’ that language unearths.

Part III

     “In which Postmodern Despair is Vanquished, and We Can Return to our Universities and Teach Poetry.”

     My point—my purpose in making my previous observations is this: there is a disconnection between language as it is now philosophically conceived in postmodern discourse, and language as it is commonly used—even among the philosophers themselves. When Derrida and the murmuration of his followers reduce meaning solely to the relationship inhering between the sign and the signified—the noun and its referent—-they are omitting the vast majority of linguistic functions. Accordingly, they have imported a reductivist platform that is being made to stand for the whole, immense range of expressive uses. Just to pick one immediate literary example, when Marc Anthony at Caesar’s funeral keeps repeating his observation, “And sure, Brutus is an honorable man,” the meaning of that phrase—understood by all who hear it—has nothing to do with the literal referent. 

     The unpublished intention, implicit in the sign/signified postulation, is to introduce an unacknowledged axiom: that the true purpose of language is to reveal the ontologically real. The postmodern formulation tacitly asserts that language is not conceived for quotidian uses (“While you’re out, will you bring me home a portabello sandwich from the Black Sheep deli?”) or for poetical, non-referential pleasures (“The world is blue like an orange.”). The essential, defining purpose of language is as a tool for the contemplative mind to extract the unknowable “ding an sich” —in the performance of which, as we are told over and over, language fails.

     Well, now, that purported failure logically follows only if we accept the reductive proposition that, first, language is merely a matter of nouns and referents, and that, second, its essential purpose lies in its philosophical discourse. However, we are not constrained, either by logic or by common usage, to accept either proposition. Shakespeare (see Marc Anthony above) along with just about every body else in the world has already discovered and published other useful propositions for language. Here, for instance, is one such provocative idea:  

From 1991 until sometime in 2000, this image/symbol is the name of the rock star ‘formerly known as Prince’. As such, it seems to me to turn postmodernism inside out, in that we have a sign connected to its signified without the medium of language at all. 

     To choose another instance, here is one of Charlie Chaplin’s famous opinions on the matter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_du8fjUN0Kg

For Chaplin, language appears to be an expressive act—extended sequentially through time—that necessarily involves gesture, facial expression and tone of voice—all of which transcends the literal vocabulary, which in this particular instance is comprised of faux Italian*.

    Of course, the ambiguity of language might in fact not be a function of all languages, but merely a feature of the Continental ones. For example, here is just a little of the mathematical language describing the physical reality of the twenty-six dimensional flat spacetime: 

I admit that this is not a language that I find especially pertinent to how I live, but I do believe that this is the best language to be used by those men and women—those physicists—who are truly, successfully capturing the nature of the noumenon: the absolute physics of the universe.

     If we do not commonly find among physicists the despair so often present in postmodernism, we also fail to locate individual differences in their mathematical language that will allow for particular people to identify themselves. Math is a universal language. It is better able to control its meanings, but at the expense of human definition, for which French, German, English—indeed virtually every other language is far better suited, even though that individuation necessarily introduces ambiguities. What I mean when I articulate a thought is not always reliably grasped in its full import by my partner in conversation. My differences introduce ambiguity into expression. I am other than you are, and what I mean—the shades of purpose I convey, the tenor of my voice, the pacing I choose—is individually mine. 

     It is exactly this individuality against which philosophy has protested. And it is this protest that I, in my turn, would want to revalue. I am far from equating linguistic ambiguity with the despair of failed significance that we find everywhere lamented in postmodernism. I would argue instead that ambiguity—precisely because it prevents material control and the successful exercise of power—is a joyous escape from convention, the delight in play, the opportunity for humor, the wonder of the unexpected, the nature of hope.

Know what I mean?

*Here is the text of Chaplin’s Song:

 Se bella giu satore
Je notre so cafore
Je notre si cavore
Je la tu la ti la twah

La spinash o la bouchon
Cigaretto Portabello
Si rakish spaghaletto
Ti la tu la ti la twah

Senora pilasina
Voulez-vous le taximeter?
Le zionta su la seata
Tu la tu la tu la wa

Sa montia si n’amora
La sontia so gravora
La zontcha con sora
Je la possa ti la twah

Je notre so lamina
Je notre so cosina
Je le se tro savita
Je la tossa vi la twah

Se motra so la sonta
Chi vossa l’otra volta
Li zoscha si catonta
Tra la la la la la la

The Lyric Narrative

This afternoon, Thursday the 9th of February, at 3:00pm, I  was to participate on a panel entitled The Lyric Narrative. If you see this post in time, and happen to be at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Washington D.C., you may jog over the Marquis Salon 7 & 8 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and attend the presentation. I am myself unable to attend, having succumbed to the flu, so I have remained in New England under the blanketing fury of a blizzard. Here is the Introduction I would have presented, if I could be there:

A Brief Apology for Narrative

It’s a simple truth that contemporary poetry is devoted to the personal lyric—one test of which might be to find a book of narrative poetry among the hundreds and hundreds of lyric volumes downstairs in the Book Fair. There won’t be many—because the personal lyric is what we have all been taught in our workshops to write: poems comprised by a momentary personal revelation, an individual truth spoken by a sole voice usually taken to be the voice of the poet. What is revealed can vary, the language of the revelation may differ from poet to poet, but that revelation nevertheless occurs to a private speaker inhabiting an individual moment.

But this poetics ignores a multitude of subjects that simply do not lend themselves to momentary expression. Important subjects that command our attention in other daily contexts. The present battles at Standing Rock, to choose just one example, cannot be fully appreciated unless the history of conflict and genocide of native American peoples is acknowledged. Here we again have armed white people invading the sacred territory of indigenous populations. More than one person is involved, and multiple events are elaborated over time. In short, the scope of this conflict is much larger than a personal response to it: the tragedies are not there for personal edification or the poet’s moral improvement. The complexities require narrative sequences to connect the parts, and to recognize characters other than the one lyric point of view

With this said by way of introduction, each of our panelists has written poetry that blends poetic intimacy and public discourse. The panelists each write about that interplay: how lesbian partnership invokes both private feeling and public comment, for instance, or how the public shame of political internment mixes with personal trauma. Such topics require extended emotional scope. Our five poets each have imagined hybrid solutions in long sustained poetic sequences. Two have written book-length chronicles; others write extended prose poems. Together the poets will discuss how they build sustained forms, and will read from their work to illustrate the shape of their thought.