Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The New Generation of Inter-Com Devices - Why They're Bad


Each new generation of communication devices is touted as an advance in human cultural progress, and it's often true. But where there's money to be made selling gadgets, the so-called advantages and attractions may be nothing more than aggressive advertising disguised as hi-tech hype. 
I can still recall the CB Radio craze, the early walkie-talkie phone craze, and, of course, the explosion of computer network use (the Internet, or World Wide Web) following the development of the Personal Computer (the cathode ray tube accompanied by a keyboard). 
The world will never be the same again, now that we're all hooked up and humming with electronic interactivity. 
But what are the long-term effects of all this device communication?

In an earlier post, from 2/1/10, I wrote the following:
"Is the world more complex, now that we have an increasingly sophisticated means of recording and replaying it, of "storing" its essence in larger and larger repositories of data, than it once had been, before written language, before verbatim, before electronic data storage? Are people smarter, or better informed, than they were before this expansion of the electronic universe of gadgets and "interactive" devices? Or are they dumber, more dependent, less creative and responsible for themselves (and their opinions) than they used to be? Are they more passive, less earnest, and somehow disengaged from reality, as the shadow-land of the internet universe comes more and more to occupy their waking consciousness? Are we becoming somehow psychologically "inverted" from reality, as an involution into fantasy, an alternate reality more "entertaining" than simply living?" 
--and I speculated about the possible effects of the new generation of inter-active devices. I've been thinking further along these same lines, and have come to some more specific conclusions.
Texting devices, such as the "Blackberry," enable people with interactive hand-helds to send immediate short-text e.mail messages (known as "tweets"--hence "Twitter") to each other. "Facebook," a new web social networking system, allows efficient communication between whole groups of people (a further refinement of the "chat-site" networks). And cell phones now enable people to take pictures and videos which can then be sent to others as e.mails. 

These devices are especially popular with teenagers and very young adults, who have bought into the idea that rapid, efficient communication at all times is somehow necessary, and fun. 
As a refugee from the older generation, which grew up with land-line telephones and radios and televisions and record-players and tape decks, this new immediacy and urgency seems pretty redundant. I remember my parents rarely used the telephone, except to transact business, though my mother did on occasion conduct "gossip" conversations with other women. Later, as a teenager, I remember having rather longish (30-45 minute) calls with friends, during which we worked out our complicated teenage problems, as surreptitiously as possible, over the family phone. 
When the internet came along, I reluctantly began to engage with others on chat-sites, and eventually started my own blog, The Compass Rose. As a professional writer, and one-time academic, writing (blogging) came naturally to me, and, like many other people, I found it an ideal medium in which to exercise my natural tendencies toward expressing opinion and conducting arguments. In addition, e.mail soon became my preferred mode for interpersonal communication, largely supplanting the telephone as a cheap, efficient message relay system. Though I carry a cell-phone, I never receive calls on it, and use it only as a way of touching base with other parties to keep appointments (perhaps 1 call, on average, every other day, or less).
But the new generation of devices has carried the efficiencies of the internet (and e.mail) to new levels. These devices--both cell-phones and the new hand-helds--have become smaller and smaller--in some cases people put ear-plugs in and have a tiny wire speaker to talk into (and can be seen walking down the street speaking oddly as if to themselves--"look, ma, no hands!")--so small, in fact, that the "keyboards" with which they make "text" messages can't be utilized except with the thumbs. These new devices are moving towards a time when people will literally be able to interact, both aurally and visually, without time or space limits, with other people in real-time. 
How much of all this interactivity is necessary? Why do people think they need to make contact with each other with the frequency they now do? The phone companies, and the manufacturers of these devices, would surely have us believe that the more calls we make, the more times we hook up and browse the streams of data available, the better. But how much is enough? Will all this flutter and buzz become passe in a couple of years? Are these devices just a passing fad, or will they increasingly take over our lives, becoming the new standard preoccupation of our lives, which computers and the internet appear to have done? 
How does the use of these devices effect our minds, our behavior, our verbal skills? 
Based on my first-hand (anecdotal) experience, most of what passes for content inside the new wave of device traffic is trivial, unnecessary and largely redundant. The tweet limit per text message is 140 characters maximum, which is about two sentences long. Most cell messages, and even cell conversations, in my experience, are short, owing in part to the sketchy nature of the transmissions, and the frequently awkward (noisy, public, untimely) conditions under which these conversations occur. Before public pay-telephones were obsoleted, they were originally housed in private booths, with doors, allowing the users complete privacy and conditions of quiet which enabled them to listen to the receiver, and to speak without broadcasting their words to anyone within earshot; as time went on, the doors came off, then the "walls" of the booth began to shrink. In their last incarnations, public phones began to look like hiway emergency phone boxes, with no aural containment(s) whatsoever.  
Today, there's a new kind of rude public discourtesy abroad: Everyone seems to think nothing of conducting every kind of phone conversation and video exchange in public, in full voice and full view. We see sophisticated couples sit down in fine restaurants where the tab hovers well above $100, each partner engaged simultaneously in a separate cell-phone conversation. You will see children and teenagers in movie houses or restaurants fiddling with their text units, completely unaware of their surroundings or companions. People will go out in public, taking their computers along, in order that they can plug in to the Wi-Fi at a coffee-shop or juice bar--it's almost as if these people are taking their computers along as dates! And in what must be the most insulting and intrusive aspect of the new hand-held technologies, people are surreptitiously (or openly) photographing or video-taping strangers in public, without their permission.      
There are at least three negative aspects to all these kinds of behaviors:
1) The imposition of private communication and disturbance. Cell phone conversations in public constitute an inappropriate invasion of public space by users. Not only do I not want to know what strangers are saying in private conversations, I don't even want to be forced to ignore what they're saying. I resent another person thinking that their cell messages, cell conversations, and hand-held exchanges are more important than their obligation to honor the reality of our company. It's a tacit declaration that what we're doing now, here, in the present, is of secondary importance and concern. It's a form of disrespect and selfishness which transcends tolerance, and should never be indulged in.    
2) The trivialization of communication through brevity (abbreviation) and ephemerality. What could possibly be important enough to require the interruption of your work, your recreation, or your free time? Fully 98% of everything that is communicated through cell phones, texters and Facebook posts has literally no value, either to the sender or the recipient; it's comprised of pointless reports, remarks, wise-cracks, or simple "Hello's" with no more import than a wave across the street. Why would anyone believe that paying a service provider to engage in this kind of bland, petty, frivolous exchange is a worthwhile investment? If indeed people do this for no other reason than that it's the current fad, then its days may yet be numbered--for which, may we all pray. The formality of the public sphere of behavior and courtesy was intended to make the public life more enjoyable and mannered, but the breakdown of these formalities already has contributed to a general atmosphere of adolescent boorishness. Habituation to the use of highly abbreviated media almost certainly has the effect of lowering the general level of literacy and the ability to express coherent thought; and the habitual resort to the fewest possible "characters"--rather than cultivating concision--certainly discourages clear thought, worked-out and organized conceptual cognition. People who over-use abbreviation, as if it were a kind of preferred speech, will eventually turn into hybrid illiterates, who've lost the ability to talk about anything at length, or in depth. They will likely become so impatient with ordinary speech and reading, that they'll abandon most print matter just out of laziness and boredom.          
3) The alienation from the presence of place and time through distraction from proximity. The notion that one must constantly be in touch with someone in another place, anyplace but right here and now, is a recipe for complete disorientation. "What's happening?" But the what's happening is almost never about where one is, what one is doing, who one is with, right now. Socialization achieved chiefly through electronic communication is a kind of bogus, ersatz socialization. One's physical presence, one's body, one's face, the sound of one's voice, the way you walk--these physical queues to one's identity are crucial existential factors in one's being in the world. For teenagers and children, especially, the idea of creating a fictitious identity on the internet, or through Facebook, is a dangerous temptation to certain kinds of schizophrenic alienation. Children are notoriously prone to it. Psychologists tell us that kids who habitually sit for extended periods of time at computers, playing games, twittering and chatting with mostly strangers online, will not only likely become overweight and lethargic and listless physically, but may also become mentally incapacitated in certain ways. Kids, and even adults, who live the balance of their meaningful lives through their electronic gadgetry, are living a shadow existence. They're connected, but they've lost touch with the reality of themselves in the physical world. 
As members of the animal kingdom on earth, we're first and foremost physical beings. Our bodies have a physical dimension which precedes our mental space. The advanced human brain was a late development of the genetic descent of apes to humanoids. Physically--neurally, and through our skeletons and musculature--we are designed to move constantly through our environment. Our bodies aren't designed as passive interactive "units" which "participate" in a vast electronic matrix as docile cogs in the machine of energized bits of data. The more of our physical and mental spaces we cede to the fee-for-service webstream, the less we "live" our lives for ourselves. 
The identities we acquire and live through within the matrix of data, are just tiny platforms of temporary utility. They give us nothing, and we leave nothing behind. Our blogs, our chat-posts, our mindless cell conversations--they obsolesce and vaporize within days, if not hours. We're living so fast and pointlessly, through the electronic waves, that we've de-valued and de-mystified ourselves as fully integrated, dignified presences.            


Monday, June 28, 2010

Ring Around the Laurels

I was amused by a brief comment posted by Barrett Watten recently [May 11, 2010] on his blog site, in response to a review of Rae Armantrout's Pulitzer Prize winning collection Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) by Dan Chiasson, which appeared in The New Yorker [May 17, 2010]. 

"The New Yorker’s recent gatekeeping effort to separate Rae Armantrout from the rest of her friends in the Language school. [sic] While it is never true that negative reviews sell books—they can kill a book as often as they sell it—here the demon of curiosity can only be let out of the bag with tantalizing references to an entire literary history a middle-brow readership has never heard of, and of course will only want to know more about." 
I've read Chiasson's review twice, and have done my best to digest its apparent point of view, but like many New Yorker reviews, it manages to sound very sophisticated and knowing, without actually saying anything very specific about its target (ostensibly Armantrout's collection of poems). 

But rather than responding to anything which Chiasson may have said, or implied about Armantrout's work per se, Watten's more concerned about what he sees is Chiasson's attempt to "separate [her] from the rest of her friends in the Language School." Watten, it should be noted, is the editor and publisher of the ambitious 10-part "experiment in collective autobiography" known as The Grand Piano, which is a clear attempt to consolidate the professional and critical-historical gains presumed to derive from the West Coast contingent of the soi-disant Language School writers (there are, to be precise, a tangent group of Language School figures associated with New York, which includes Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, among others).     
As he describes the Language Poets, Chiasson wants us to think of them as predictably, deliberately, subversive; as wanting to de-mystify the individual, in order to deconstruct the cult of the personality; "the aim was to be understood as a collective" as he says. "Still, real differences among the individuals have since come to light, chiefly differences in talent, and Armantrout is by an order of magnitude the best poet of the group. One reason she has become so good is that she takes the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go: toward the mapping of a single individual's extraordinary mind and uniquely broken heart." In other words, Chiasson intends to put Armantrout, as contestant, right back into the competition for individual achievement. This is anathema to the vision of a cohesive, interactive, inter-operative, inter-dependent GROUP, which is the single driving agenda of The Grand Piano. Individuals may be talented, they may make discoveries, they may write well, they may even invent, but their value and their importance must be restricted to the collective. This is Leftist Art Theory at its very worst--so long ago discredited and abandoned, even before the deck-clearing detonations of the Second World War, that those who might have recognized its tired symptoms from the hazy distant past, have all now long since died off. Christopher Caudwell!  

So what is it that Watten wishes Armantrout would be? Should she refuse the Pulitzer, like Sinclair Lewis and William Saroyan, as the bland, bald piece of institutionalized, commercial seduction that it is? Or should it be jointly celebrated: "I couldn'a don'it wit'out da guys back at da bar," the trophy placed behind the mantle-piece at the home for retired Language Poets? Does Armantrout really deserve her prize? Is it fair for her to take all the credit for the joint enterprise which all the Grand Piano members know they each deserve some credit for bringing into being? Should she donate the prize money to the starving of Somalia, or would that seem just a little too much like the publicity-worthy brand of philanthropy of Brad and Angolina? 
For my part, I always thought Rae was a hot poet, and nothing she's ever published, since the first poems of hers I saw in Caterpillar magazine, has ever moved me to change my opinion. I never thought of her as a Language Poet, which I suppose might be considered a failure of comprehension on my part, unless you regard her inclusion in the collective as nothing more than a gratuitous bit of group-think. Branding, after all, as Ron Silliman likes to say, is how you get identified in the real world of poetry as a real labor product. If I'd understood, from the beginning, how much Rae owed to Barry and Ron and Charles and Kit and Lyn, I certainly wouldn't have given so much credence to the quality of her individual genius. Geniuses, after all, can't be easily accounted for by milieu and circumstance. They appear without warning or advance notice, and break records and rules. There's just no accounting for them. Try as we may to explain them away, it does no good.
The human mind is an amazing thing. Will America really want to know more about the Language Poets--as Watten avers--now that one of their number has broken through the wall, has crossed the moat and penetrated the Castle of the Official Verse Culture? Or will it be content merely with this hasty summary provided by trusty Dan Chiasson, anxious that his readers should appreciate Ms. Armantrout for the intriguing poet that she is, sans any distraction from the hoardes of the nattering nabobs of negativism? Don't hold your breath.           

Levine's Lion

As a reader and writer of poetry, I'm not much interested in prizes and awards. The poet Philip Levine seems to have won almost all the prizes that a poet can hope for in this country. The Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and many little awards and grants and acknowledgments along the way. I've never been impressed by these kinds of laurels, except when they're given to someone whose work I've always thought deserved more recognition than it's been given. Americans like underdogs. Rae Armantrout, I like to think, was an underdog, but if a writer's good enough, eventually they'll be discovered and revered as they deserve to be. This doesn't always happen in American culture. We're a capitalist society. Self-promotion and attention-getting efforts will often succeed in raising the level of one's reputation to a higher level than is perhaps deserved. I've never thought that the writing of poetry is a social phenomenon; it's basically a solitary act, and despite its very modest social or professional dimension (readings, teaching), it's still about what you do when you're alone at the desk, thinking and making poems.          

Philip Levine began his career as a devoted academic writer. He makes a big to-do about growing up in Detroit, working in an automobile factory. Proletarian, working-class preoccupations play a big part in the subject matter of his poems. But you get the feeling that this is just special pleading; Levine has fed off the academy nearly all his adult life. Writing about production-line auto workers for half a century, while teaching poetry workshops and giving readings to academic audiences strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. If Levine "escaped" from a working-class life, that escape shouldn't involve a life-long commitment to exploiting the poetic possibilities of the details of that working-class existence; which strikes me as a kind of fake romantic nostalgia for a 'Thirties social conscience. It doesn't ring true. In addition, he's written a good deal about Spain, where he's spent time, and often employs a sentimental attitude towards Spanish society. There's often a kind of familiar tough-guy-I've-shared-the-burden attitudinizing which I find tiresome. If you've spent the better part of your whole life in relative comfort, living within the American university system, drawing a nice pension, and being lionized by your peers, pretending this pity and hand-wringing concern over the poor and politically oppressed can get a little old.     
Despite this, Levine is a very good poet, and his work has improved over time. Beginning as a student of Lowell and Berryman, and later of Yvor Winters (at Stanford), he eventually developed a stripped-down, short-line style which has suited his purposes very well. Ultimately, complaining (as I've done) about a poet's subject-matter isn't the relevant criticism. As the example of Stevens and Pound and Moore and Eliot showed, it isn't what you're saying that matters, it's how you go about saying it. Formally, Levine isn't an experimenter, but he has managed to strip away unnecessary frippery, to deal directly with impressions and feelings which have continued to interest him, throughout his career.  
When the collection They Feed They Lion was published, in 1972 [New York: Atheneum], I was surprised by many of the poems in it. The tone of many of the poems was sharper, better than I would have expected, given his beginnings. I especially was impressed by the title poem, which I quote here in full:

They Feed They Lion

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter, 
Out of black bean and wet slate bread, 
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar, 
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies, 
They Lion grow. 
                               Out of the gray hills 
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride, 
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties, 
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps, 
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch, 
They Lion grow. 
                              Earth is eating trees, fence posts, 
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones, 
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls, 
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness, 
From the furred ear and the full jowl come 
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose 
They Lion grow. 
                             From the sweet glues of the trotters 
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower 
Of the hams the thorax of caves, 
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up," 
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels, 
The grained arm that pulls the hands, 
They Lion grow. 
                               From my five arms and all my hands, 
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed, 
From my car passing under the stars, 
They Lion, from my children inherit, 
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion, 
From they sack and they belly opened 
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth 
They feed they Lion and he comes.

The poem is a kind of chant, or litany of images and details, a cornucopia of ugly, sad, repulsive matter. Though derived ostensibly from a modern waste land setting, the poem also has a primtivistic feel, evoking the ancient animus of the carnivore, the Lion, to represent both the threat of the natural world, and the demons of greed and exploitation as exemplified by industrial development and capital. Some critics have found in the poem a parallel thematic content to Yeats's poem Second Coming, a connection which seems all too obvious and gratuitous to me. But Levine clearly wants the poem to have this kind of mythic quality, and I think he succeeds in raising the ante, both through the vividness of his imagery, and the hypnotic quality of his phraseology. "Feeding the beast" of exploitation only makes it stronger, more irresistible. We are drawn into this feeding frenzy not only by our hunger and need, but by the excitement and hysteria of the hunt, the ceremonial pomp of the slaughter and the feast. 
Ultimately, we summon the beast of retribution, or of desolation, and we are absolved through our own sacrifice to a primitive god-head: We are devoured, our entrails spilled out, our liberal pretensions right along with our selfishness and sensual luxuries, all consumed. 
At least to some degree, the poem transcends Levine's usual proletarian sympathies to achieve a higher level of meaning. Signally, it's written in a style which is not typical of him. It's almost a pointlessly forsaken poem, its anger and pity earned and purified by the relinquishing of self to the larger implications of general guilt. In American society, we can all lay claim to our own share of greed and desire and bloody hunger.      

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Georgia O

When asked once what the inspiration for her deeply moving abstract canvases was, Georgia O'Keeffe [1887-1986] replied (this is not a precise quote, but close enough): "The only thing I can say is that I paint things that I don't know about. If you know about something, it's of no interest, artistically speaking. If you don't know about something, it's a mystery, and you can make art out of that."

This principle, which amounts almost to a kind of simple poetics, is one I took to heart when I first heard it. The mysterious, in art--that which intrigues us beyond our initial comprehension--is the basis for much of what we appreciate and crave. We are drawn into it, it sustains our attention, and feeds something, perhaps blind curiosity, in us that nourishes our expectation, luring us forward into the continual seduction of experience. 

Much has been written about O'Keeffe's work, and there are many books of images of her work. It's almost become a commonplace of 20th Century American art, and of art by women. Her biography is also well-known. Her affair with Stieglitz (and the daring portraits by him), her early influences, her self-exile in New Mexico, the long life of dedication to her work, the monkish purity of her compound, the struggle over the rights to her precious work. 

Her paintings and drawings present a clear record of the progression of a journey, from uncertainty and inquiry, through struggle and triumph, towards a condition of almost religious calm and a perfect stasis--a settled relationship between an artist and her milieu (environment) which enabled her to speak through a strict set of ikonic images and symbols through which she was able to express a specific range of emotional and intellectual statements.
Much has been written about O'Keeffe's originality--her early influences which included Gauguin, Stella, Hartley, and especially Dove, for instance--but there is no question that her mature work sets her apart from all others, creating a legacy that is unmatched in American painting. Taking abstraction as far as it could be taken, without completely abandoning representation, she triumphed over it, while others in the post-war generations saw their careers diluted and distracted by the descent into mindless blurring, stippling, splattering and shapelessness. 

Though her work is well-known, previously suppressed or unknown images keep coming to light. With each new monograph, it seems, a few new images are added to the public oeuvre, incrementally adding to and slightly altering and refining our sense of what she was capable of, and of how her sense of the possibilities of certain techniques and approaches to subject matter grew over time. 

This week, looking over a recent new monograph on her work, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Collections, with text by Barbara Buhler Lynes [New York: Abrams, in association with Georgeia O'Keeffe Museum], commemorating the tenth year of the Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was struck by the inclusion of a number of "new" canvases (new to me, in any case), from both the earliest years of her work, and among the very late years. Their powerful, simple, visionary quality, which which comprise a kind of set of keys to many of the larger, more ambitious works (ambitious in scale, as well as elaboration). The book is divided into sections by theme, for instance AbstractionSculptureArchitectureAnimal and Human Forms, etc. There is, in addition, a number of photographs of O'Keeffe, including many from the Stieglitz documentation.

A number of fairly obvious conclusions can be drawn from even a casual perusal of these images. O'Keeffe was exploring primitive composition in an attempt to build an overall structural control, to set up tensions and interlocking/interpenetrating masses which could express the emotional and psychological conundrums and dilemmas she felt as an independent woman striving to define her art, in a world dominated by men. Much of the imagery is frankly sexual--both female and male--and the centrifugal power of these images puts them among the most persuasive of her works.

Many of the most ambitious of the larger canvases--especially the flower studies, and some of the later abstract New Mexico landscapes--derive their force and command from the preliminary studies she did, in preparation for, leading up to, fuller, richer canvases. She will take a thematic element--say, a winding ribbon of road through a dry, flat landscape--and elaborate its visual potential through a series of different versions. In this way, it's used to express different moods and aspects of the same scene, seen in each instance, either as a defining shape of its own, or as a divisive lineation between competing masses. 

Many of these primitivistic studies carry this "mysterious" or sly seductive revelation--that aspect of not knowing about which O'Keeffe set such store by--balls or sharp dagger-points emerge from behind cloak-like panels or capes of color, suggesting sexual intrigue or titillating dalliance. Others are frankly anatomical, thrusting up before the viewer with a forthright declaration. 

The myth of the sexual O'Keeffe, the subject of Stieglitz's amorous, obsessive photographic portraits, has lent credence to the impression of O'Keeffe as a liberated personality, at ease with her own body, her own sexuality, and with a satiation of physically pleasured solitudes or meditative acceptance--the solitary woman wandering among stark landscapes, sufficient unto herself, engaged with the elemental forces of land, light, heat, death, and mysterious, intriguing shapes and phenomena: Bones, storms, dramatic sunsets, empty courtyards, trees, clouds, shadows, etc. 

Her canvases are the dramatic evidence of this engagement, of the record of her journey, away from a conjugal relationship with Stieglitz, toward a metaphysical realization of an ultimate, transcendent illumination, beyond love, beyond motherhood, beyond even the sustenance of bodily comfort and securities. The vision she imagined as a young art instructor in Texas near the beginning of her career, began to be realized two decades later, after she had left New York to live in New Mexico, at first seasonally, then permanently (from 1949), when she devoted the remainder of her life to exploring and portraying the area around her home north of Santa Fe.

As the dates of these crude studies show, she used drawings or simple watercolors throughout her career, to define a figure or relationship of shapes, at a primitive level, in a process of leading up to the performance of a fully worked-out canvas. These simple studies are the most revealing evidence of the process of her thought and meditation about form--they are the germination of her ideas and speculations. They are like notes towards to the essays which the paintings are. 

The level of finish or completion which the late works show, is partly attributable to the breakdown of O'Keeffe's aging physical and perceptual powers, yet their quality is roughly synonymous with the simplicity and incomplete sketchiness or attractive crudity of many of the studies. 

The power which is most apparent in her landscapes, flower studies and abstractions results from the intrusion of insistent vital forces, or elemental aspects of nature. The vaunting stems and petals and stamens, the harsh imposition of sun on forsaken dry earth, bone, wood, the insistent concentration upon extruded, spun, fractured, molten, scarred surfaces, and the monochromatic vacancies of raw energetic light--attest to a close study of the dream-like engagement with nature, at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. And often it is both simultaneously. 

The same formal designs we see at the minute level, are revealed at large scale. The interpenetration of the great and small, the ephemeral and eternal, the modest with the heroic, gives her work a quality that is concurrently domestic, private while at the same time being impersonal and intellectually honed. She is a woman who moved beyond her own powerful sexuality to achieve a vision that is transcendent and fully realized. Things are more than they are, but never so much as when we see them, first, for what they are in their essence. Seeing at this level is an achievement beyond ordinary means, but it is attained through a discipline that combines openness to experience with a determination to master it. Will power and service. Training and relaxation. Tension and calm. 

"If we both listen, something may happen."  --Brett Weston         


Images in order from above:

1 O'Keeffe in her studio.
2 O'Keeffe with Stieglitz.Italic
3 O'Keeffe with a canvas outdoors at Abiquiu.
4 Watercolor painting Black Lines, 1916.
5 Painting Anything, 1916.
6 Drawing Black Diagonal, 1919. 
7 Drawing No. 17--Special, 1919.
8 Painting Series No.1--From the Plains, 1919.
9 Painting Blue Line, 1919.
10 Pastel Abstraction Seaweed and Water--Maine, 1920.
11 Painting A Piece of Wood I, 1042. 
12 Painting Blue II, 1958.
13 Watercolor painting Untitled (Abstraction Green Line and Red Circle), 1979. 
14 Watercolor painting Untitled (Abstraction Red Wave with Circle), 1979.
15 Painting In the Patio VIII, 1950.
16 Painting Untitled (Skunk Cabbage), 1927.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Odd Trope - Stein, Hemingway, Stewart

Let's have a little fun. Starting with one of three stories, supposing you knew nothing about either of the other two, and could only understand each according to the inner logic and references you could substantiate from it alone. 
Given a little intuition, you'd probably come up with a fairly recognizable portrait of the Author, and a general outline of his/her views concerning the subject matter of the text. 
Here are the three texts: 
Miss Furr and Miss Skeene. Gertrude Stein.  Written between 1909 and 1911, first published in Geography and Plays [1922].  
Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad [novel]. Donald Ogden Stewart. First published by George H. Doran [1924]. 
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot. Ernest Hemingway. First published in The Little Review Autumn 1924 - Winter 1925, and in book form in in our time, Charles Scribner's Sons [1925].  
The Hemingway and Stein works are short stories. The Stewart piece is a complete novel.  I was first struck by the similarity of the titles of these separate works. Note the dates of publication. It seems plausible to me that both Stewart and Hemingway would have been aware of Stein's story. Her work had become notorious since the publication of Tender Buttons in 1914; periodical essays had been written about her, and she had already acquired a reputation as an outrageous, though largely bogus, figure of the pretentious European avant garde art scene--her works regarded as put-ons or elaborate hoaxes, without true, serious literary merit. American "exiles"--in the public consciousness (see Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return [1934])--were targets of sophisticated humor and parody during the 'Twenties. 
Donald Ogden Stewart is largely forgotten today. Shortly after publishing Mr. and Mrs. Haddock, he went to Hollywood, launching a career as a screenwriter which lasted well into the the 1970's. Blacklisted in 1950, he was obliged to live abroad thereafter, his screenwriting efforts in American productions uncredited (Summertime [1955], An Affair to Remember [1957], The Prisoner of Zenda [1952]); his very impressive pre-Blacklist credits include The Philadelphia Story [1940], and Life with Father [1947]. His screen work seems in retrospect even more impressive than that of Dalton Trumbo, perhaps the most famous of the Hollywood Ten. (Stewart wasn't one of this group, but he was, like dozens of others involved in the witch-hunting, nonetheless, black-listed; check out the names in the Wikipedia List.) 
In his early years, Hemingway had a mischievous streak. His early novelette The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race, Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1926, is often described as a savage attack on the work of Sherwood Anderson. He also covertly co-authored a satiric burlesque. Many of his early stories read like tongue-in-cheek send-ups of his contemporaries (Dos Passos, Pound, Ford).  
Each of these three texts deals with an American couple visiting Europe--ostensibly as tourists, ostensibly for the first time. In each case, the archly ironic tone of the narrative is frankly satirical, though this approach, in each case, is employed for different purposes. 
Let's sample a generous helping of each piece, before discussing them further:
from the beginning paragraph of Miss Furr and Miss Skeene by Gertrude Stein--
Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked traveling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.
. . . . . .
They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay.
. . . . . .
They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then.
The language which Stein employs in this story is familiarly repetitive, like much of her work. The repetitions pile up, there is a kind of lulling monotony to the flow of repeated phrases, nested one into another in an endless chanting stream. The repeated use of the word "gay" acquires a kind of ironic absurdity which is unmistakable, particularly as much of contemporary audiences would not have "got it." The piece contains the word "gay" over one hundred times, perhaps the first published use of the word "gay" in reference to same-sex relationships and those who have them, and as such uninformed readers missed any lesbian content. A similar portrait of gay men begins more obviously with the line "Sometimes men are kissing" but is less well known.  "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" is one of the first coming out stories to be published. The piece, like Q.E.D., is informed by Stein's growing involvement with a gay and lesbian community, though it is based on lesbian partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars. (For a fuller account of this model Gay couple, see this article;  Stein's portrait of the two women featured the sly repetition of the word gay, used with sexual intent for one of the first times in linguistic history.) Critic Edmund Wilson had come to the same conclusion in 1951 when he said that "it seemed obvious that Stein's queer little portraits and her mischieveously baffling prose poems did not often deal with subjects of this sort" (i.e., relationships between women). Wilson also referred to Mars and Squire as "that touching pair of left-handed gloves."
It should be recalled that Hemingway acknowledged a debt of gratitude to Stein for showing him--by example if not by outright statement--how her discovery of the potential range of effects of repetition in prose sentence composition might be exploited in straight story writing. In Hemingway's Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, we have an example not only of the use of taut, sardonic prose which Hemingway mimicked to seem amusing and haughty and sly, but of the kind of concision common to all his short stories. Hemingway was at the height of his powers at this point--and would probably never be as clever and intelligent again, throughout a long career of novel-writing and hybrid personal first-hand-account (and occasionally fictionalized) journalism. For a straightforward account of the story, go here. A couple, Hubert and Cornelia decide to marry and go live in Europe. Cornelia is from the genteel South, and, already aged 40, is probably too old to have children. Hubert is an aspiring poet. Cornelia is hypochondriac, and soon she becomes intimate with another woman. She and Hubert maintain separate living arrangements. Hemingway dealt with the question of love triangles elsewhere in his work--in The Garden of Eden, a novel based (it is generally acknowledged) upon the break-up of his first marriage, involving his eventual second wife Pauline. That the love triangle which Mr. and Mrs. Elliot describes, should imply, if not actually coming out and saying in so many words, a lesbian relationship, would suggest a literary relationship between Stein's story and Hemingway's probable response to it. The original "target" of Hemingway's satire is allegedly Chard Powers Smith, an author (now obscure) of some narrative poems; the story had originally been entitled Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but was changed for legal reasons. However, the story may also have been aimed at T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land had been published to much acclaim and confusion in 1922. The similarities between the main character, Hubert, and T.S. Eliot, are striking. They are from Boston, went to Harvard, wrote long poems, were virgins, were enticed by their wives on the dance floor, and both suffered a loveless marriage of sexual ineptitude. Although Hemingway would later admit his depth of indebtedness to Eliot, and say that Eliot "watered the waste land and made it bloom like a rose," there is little question that Hemingway's sense of mischief was broad enough to include almost anyone. Here's a sample from Mr. and Mrs. Elliot--
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick. That is women from the Southern part of the United States. Like all Southern women Mrs. Elliot disintegrated very quickly under sea sickness, travelling at night, and getting up too early in the morning. Many of the people on the boat took her for Eliot's mother. Other people who knew they were married believed she was going to have a baby. In reality she was forty years old. Her years had been precipitated suddenly when she started travelling.
  She had seemed much younger, in fact she had seemed not to have any age at all, when Elliot had married her after several weeks of making love to her after knowing her for a long time.
. . . . . .
Elliot had a number of friends by now all of whom admired his poetry and Mrs. Elliot had prevailed upon him to send over to Boston for her girl friend who had been in the tea shop. Mrs. Elliot became much brighter after her girl friend came and they had many good cries together. The girl friend was several years older than Cornelia and called her Honey. She too came from a very old Southern family. 
. . . . . .
Mrs. Elliot was learning the touch system on the typewriter, but she found that while it increased the speed it made more mistakes. The girl friend was now typing practically all of the manuscripts. She was very neat and efficient and seemed to enjoy it.
. . . . . .
Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big mediaeval bed. They had many a good cry together. In the evening they all sat at dinner together in the garden under a plane tree and the hot evening wind blew and Elliot drank white wine and Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend made conversation and they were all quite happy.  

What is perhaps most striking about the similarities between the Stein and Hemingway stories is the way that verbal repetition is used as double entendre to imply other aspects of the characters' behavior and nature(s). Though each story challenges the prevailing official mores of the time (lesbianism and open triangular relationships), each does so with a kind of cattiness which puts a distance between the situation, and the authorial presence. There's a kind of dispassionate contempt in the Hemingway story, however, which one doesn't see in the Stein piece. Both, though, possess a ceertain stilted dignity which allows them to be perceived as art, rather than as, on the one hand, a vicious satire, and on the other, a covert mock celebration of sexual "deviance."
Though you might deduce from the title of Donald Ogden Stewart's comic romp Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad that it is a story about Americans in Europe, the characters in his story never actually get to the Continent. It's a parlor-room drama set on board a trans-oceanic cruise ship on its way to Europe. 
Here are the opening sentences--
Mr and Mrs Haddock were very excited about going abroad. It was the first time either of them had ever been abroad to Europe, although Mr Haddock had been to Chicago eight times, Kansas City five times, Kansas City (Kan.) five times, St. Louis four times, Denver four times, and New York City twice, but it had rained four days out of five. 
  Mrs Haddock had been to St. Louis once and Chicago twice, in Pullman cars, named, respectively, Edgar Allen Poe, Sweet Juniper, and Spauldingopolis. She had not slept very well the first two times and the third time she had not slept at all. She slept very well at home, though, mostly on her back and left side. Her mother's maiden name had been Quetch.
  Mr and Mrs Haddock had been married twenty-four odd years and their grandparents were all dead on both sides. So they were quite alone in the world except for Mr Haddock's father and mother and Mrs Haddock's father and mother, who were, however, quite old, their combined ages totalling 439 or several score years.
. . . . . .

When Mr Haddock and Mrs Haddock had been first married he had said to a lot of their best friends: "You may sneer at us now for only going to the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, on our wedding journey but some day you will sneer out of the other side of your mouth." 
  And with that he had hit his horse a terrific slash and driven away, and he and she had sworn that very day that before they were forty they would show everybody and go abroad. Mr Haddock was now fifty-one and Mrs Haddock was forty-nine and so their prophecy had come true. They were going abroad.     
The manner and mood of Stewart's little ship-board farce is typical 'Twenties fare, filled with mock-theatrical repartee. By the end of the 267 page narrative, the steward knocks at the Haddocks cabin door: "Europe, sir! Europe!" The Haddocks had arrived. The End. 
After World War I, Stewart wrote A Parody Outline of History, a satire of The Outline of History (1920) by H.G. Wells. This, and other works, both for the stage, and the sophisticated literary crowd (Perfect Behavior: A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social  Crises [1922]; the sequel Mr. and Mrs. Haddock in Paris, France [1926]; Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind [1923]; The Crazy Fool [1925] etc., led to his becoming a member of the Algonguin Round Table.2 Stewart was the model for Bill Gorton in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. 
Stewart's skill at setting a kind of superfluous, light-hearted, ridiculous dialogue was of undoubted value in his career as a screen-writer as well as a playwright. 1930's Hollywood comedies--like his The Philadelphia Story [1940] (for which he won the 1941 Academy Award), one of the greatest screen romantic comedies of all time, which starred Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart--were 95% sparkling dialogue, and 5% action. If you take the Stewart's amusing, but flimsy, little comedy and put it beside the other two examples here, you can see how both  Stein's and Hemingway's pieces work against type, in other words they exist as exceptional parodies of the character of the artistic modes of their time. Stewart's witty, silly narrative about nouveau riche American yahoos, out to prove their provenance by sailing to Europe, is the back-drop for the lampooning derisiveness which the self-styled "exiles" (Hemingway and Stein) utilize to mock their targets. 
On a deeper level, the sexual content of the other two stories provides an interesting illustration of the historical development of suppressed content in art and politics. Stewart's mockery of American speech and behavior in the Haddock books (and elsewhere) has a predictable, fluffy all-in-good-fun feel, whereas the two satiric pieces have a deeper, darker motivation. The lives of all three Authors provide interesting undercurrents to the themes they address here. Stein maintained a lesbian relationship with Alice Toklas until her death, in 1946, and many of her works have come to be seen as thinly veiled accounts of lesbian figures in her life, or from history. Hemingway, who had once been an intellectual intimate of Stein's, eventually repudiated her and her art, damning her person and sexuality, publicly, in A Moveable Feast [1964], and elsewhere. At the close of the 'Twenties, Hemingway had embarked on the macho period in is life, during which physical feats of daring, bravery and performance took center stage, as he constructed the heroic image of himself, which he would play off of for the rest of his very public life. Polite society, or middle-class respectability, would probably have been regarded with a similar kind of contempt by all three writers. Rich people and artists, i.e., Gerald & Sara Murphy--"living well is the best revenge"--might find their way into favor, but the air of sprightly condescension, so popular in the periodicals of the 1920's, in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc., could be both a curse and a blessing for serious artists striving to overcome what was perceived as American provinciality.
How did it come about that Ogden Stewart would be blacklisted? Apparently, because during the late 1930's, as WWII aproached, he had been a member of a Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which was later suspected of being a Communist Front. Following his blacklisting, he emigrated to England where he lived for the rest of his life. The choices which artists and scholars made during the 1930's and 1940's often came back to haunt them. Questions have been raised about Stein's behavior during the Vichy Occupation, though as a Jew in Europe, she would certainly have had serious risks to consider, while she remained in France. Hemingway, always the patriot, had had serious questions raised about his "Leftist" sympathies during the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939], since Loyalist supporters often rubbed shoulders with anti-Fascists of various persuasions, including open Communists.    
The comparison of these three related texts throws an interesting light on a lively period in American literary history. The subject-matter of the work, and the lives of the three writers who created them, are telling examples of the forces which shape aesthetic programs, and which in turn change opinion. Stewart is a figure now almost forgotten, though his contributions to the American stage, American cinema, and American Literature from the 1920's to the 1950's were impressive. Would he not have been more celebrated, had he not been sent underground by being blacklisted in the early 1950's? What is the degree of debt owed by Hemingway to Stein? Would Stein's career have been different, had she openly advocated for lesbian rights during her lifetime?    

1 Photo at top from endpapers of copy of Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad, by Donald Ogden Stewart, Illustration by Herb Roth, New York: George H. Doran Company, copyright 1924.

2 See under Benchley, Kaufman, Parker, Woollcott, Adams, Broun, Ross, Sherwood et al.  Also, betimes, Donald Ogden Stewart.