Monday, February 22, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

Back in October, BBC 3 broadcast a documentary entitled Is Britain Racist? The production was typical of what passes for documentaries these days. Either the documentary relies on facts with a twist in the tale or proceeds with crazy experiments to convince viewers of the programme's cutting edge research. Is Britain Racist? followed the second pattern. People were subject to implicit race tests, the presenter had her brain scanned for hidden responses that marked prejudice, and a group of three guinea pigs/researchers went out into troubled areas to test reactions. Deji/Black encountered no hostilities, but was the most searched in shops. Hanna/Muslim was insulted for wearing her niqab and told by White British males to get back to her own country. Richard/Jewish was subjected to fuck off gestures by Asian Muslim males. Race was confused with religion (mind you that blurring exists in the UK). The most bizarre racism test saw Deji, Richard and Hanna offering free doughnuts to passers by as a way of eliciting racial responses, that is evidence of prejudice. The best section of the programme concerned the mutation of "racist" into a new term "Culturalist", which is pig thick ignorance given intellectual status, the blustering nonsense of the UK's Right Wing parties re-cast into a lot of hot-air about preserving cultural traditions and values. This is the sort of stuff that the UK Government has peddled as British Values in its schools...things like the creation of democracy...which the Greeks copied from Britain and its Empire. 

Last night, BBC 4 screened Stanley Nelson's masterly documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). (The film can be viewed here). It was all that Is Britain Racist ? wasn't. There were no tricks, just solid research and deep, meaningful images. As Nelson phrased it: "I had to dig deeper for footage that captured an authentic portrayal of the Party and which was not distorted by mainstream media." And there was no gimmicky surprise findings at the close, rather a continual effort to appraise information.

The real triumph of the documentary was its ability to rely on a thematic element: the visible and the invisible. Throughout the film, Nelson focused on the visibility of the Panthers and the invisibility of FBI-- the extent to which the Panthers were almost too open about their intentions, how the need to trump statements led to a frightening visual scenario, one growing out of control; the degree to which Hoover was "insidious" in briefing against the Panthers. The documentary showed the roots of the Panther's appeal and power: style intersecting politics and language. There was a chilling moment on Newton's release in which he stripped off his shirt to reveal his torso: masculine, sexual power, the threat of the phobic Black body. In contrast, the forces of Hoover were mind games, yet more destructive.

The documentary did not lose itself in a survey of cult figures. It read the carrying of weapons as a sign of honesty as well as threat. This wasn't a closet terrorist organisation: it was an open defence unit. Also, the documentary addressed the importance and presence of women in the Panthers. There were not the negative, sex objects often cited. Their parts were as vital as those of women in other Black Freedom movements. They were portrayed then as now, as literate, intellectual and fully aware of their roles and responsibilities. Most interesting was the link that the Panthers made between nutrition and schooling, a modern idea in UK schools, such that their breakfast clubs cooked 20,000 meals a week to guarantee that children started the day with the energy to study.

The skill with which Nelson handled imagery was poetic. Everything flowed into the eye, from the beauty of Black is Beautiful, to the military fashion of The Panthers, to the unchaining of the Afro, to the propagandist art of Emory Douglas, right down the line to how The Panther's controlled the visual image in their newspapers, the auditory image in their radio broadcasts, and the sensual imagery of the voice in their speeches. 

There was no pig-shit ignorance in Nelson's documentary-- it was replete with intellectual insights that did its subject full justice. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution matched meaning to method (as did The Panthers), and belongs in the vanguard of documentary film making. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Post Identity Politics.

For the past few days I have been reading Song After All (2013) which is a series of exchanges between Reginald Shepherd and Alan Contreras. At the core of the book is a discussion on gay male post identity politics. To make the discussion clear, Contreras (as Editor) includes Part Two of Shepherd's blog post and their follow-up comments. I remembered reading these at the time. Eight years on (to the very day by coincidence) I read them with a different perspective--not to disagree with Shepherd, who was right to insist that gay identity poetry produces dreary poetry, nor to change my view on the discussions we had, but to note a personal take on the debate that was not present then. There is a world of difference between the poetic spectrum and waving the rainbow flag. I re-read the debate with different eyes: must be the new varifocal glasses.

Firstly, having returned to Shepherd's blog, I noticed his belief that there was a change in consciousness that could be called pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall, a point at which the gay world shifted and gay identity became political. That is often stated, but how true is it? In Part Five of his posts on post identity politics, Shepherd posts an AWP presentation by Brian Teare in which the issue is approached through Thom Gunn's admiration and friendship with Robert Duncan. Strangely, hardly anything is said about Gunn's response to Duncan's courageous outing of himself in 1944...twenty-five years before Stonewall. Nor is anything mentioned about how the situation went against the Duncan grain. Duncan's statement in Politics was a political stand and Duncan's argument with Ransom was equally political: Duncan told Ransom that his refusal to publish the poem was against the First Amendment. Yet Duncan believed that politics and poetry did not mix: political activism was not the role of the poet. Perhaps, Teare ought to have made the important point that identity did not create poetry for Duncan, but that poetry was the creation of complex identities. Homosexuality, for Duncan, was defined by poetry and the idea of identity politics was a falsehood. Possibilities existed within poetry and within that totality the love of men would seek new definitions. Duncan knew H.D. in depth and there was no identity outside the poet, outside H(ermetic) D(efinition).

On a simpler note...for whom was Stonewall such a massive watershed? For USA "gay" poets who can shrug off the label "gay".  But the debate surely ranges beyond here. Is post-identity a luxury for USA poets? What about the emerging gay poets in Singapore, for example, who are as significant as the USA poets, but do not live in a society that allows them to be free, where society is two-faced and a liberal face masks another that wears a conservative blindfold. Or the oppressed poets in Russia under Putin? Can they live in a state of post identity politics?

It is interesting and worrying how insular the AWP debates were...I am speaking only of those cited in Shepherd's blogs. 

Secondly, having returned to Shepherd's blog post (as quoted in Song After All) I started to assemble the varied responses. 

1) "Gay poet" is a double displacement...both gay and poet are marginalised within society." (A minority-ethnic gay poet, then, has a triple displacement???). Post-identity makes the cancelling of "gay" acceptable. But would the poets who cancel "gay" be as happy about cancelling "Black" or "American". Clearly not, as all the poets think within their American identity. Shepherd would cancel "Black" and "Gay" because the purpose of poetry is what language can create. Poetry is the creation of what is possible and should not be restricted by what is. I empathise with his intelligent view. (It is why, in Song After All, he finds little value in Essex Hemphill and poetic activism). Shepherd's position is very much in line with Duncan--the poem is everything. But what happens when all the "gay poets" transform into poets? What happens to visibility?

2) Gay poetry has lost its element of risk, it is trying to pass (as in society) as straight. So, the change from "gay poet" into "poet" follows the trend of passing. Ronan McDonald makes a telling point in The Death of the Critic (2007that no one wants to be just a critic these days. Critics are "Critics and Writers" so that the unacceptable is made acceptable by the honoured term "Writer". It is interesting to note a similar step being taken by Poets. They are no longer simply Poets: they are Poets and Writers. As society moves away from the Arts, the tendency is to dump terms that do not pass. It is part of the need to be "liked" at all costs. If a Poet wants to protect Poet, why not protect Gay? Is the post-identity phase a way of denying the thorn-in-the-side?

3) Gay is a sign of the "antithetical"...poets gain strength from their antagonism. Here, it is curious how gay is always seen as antithetical to straight, how homosexuality is a reaction to the heterosexual norm. Marjorie Garber wisely points out in Vice Versa (1996) that this common assumption is a huge mistake. Heterosexual is a cultural back-formation. "Homosexual" was coined, then "heterosexual" was created to reflect the opposite. Edward Carpenter, the radical Socialist thinker (in the UK, not USA) imagined this in one of his poems in Democracy when he viewed the Uranian Adam as homosexual before the creation of Eve--what a daring idea, that Adam had an identity that could be known before heterosexuality came along! The gay male is not antithetical to straights, he is antithetical to orthodox perception. 

4) Queerness creates questioning. It is perpetual challenge. Would the questioning stop, though, if the term "gay" is dropped from "gay poet"? Isn't the Poet about questioning too. Isn't that what a poet does? Isn't poetry about a challenge to what is by creating what Shepherd called Otherhood? Is "gay poet" a double-questioning of assumed reality or a tautology? 

5) There is a danger that as society becomes more accepting of gay people that the process of "normalising" begins. Is that a loss of identity, of difference? Is the loss of "gay poet" a step towards conformity and a loss of a unique poetic voice? 

6) UK gets a mention...interestingly, though, Gregory Woods is quoted for his historical view-point, not as a significant "gay poet", so no real attempt to widen the debate beyond American poetry. The gay poet expands awareness by engaging with paradoxical language, a variety of language beyond the mainstream. Is this more to do with "poet" rather than "gay"?... "British poet and author"...the word gay is not attributed to Woods...strangely he already seems to have been liberated beyond the identity politics boundary and has entered into the post-identity Paradise!

7) Is there still a need to reflect gay desire in poetry in which case "gay poet" remains a valid term? The sexual element of gay poetry--which marked identity politics--is in retreat. Poets are afraid of being confessional because Confessional Poet is a feared label. But maybe...beyond the USA...there isn't that fear. American poetry had to go through its stages of Confessionalism to break new ground...maybe Confessionalism is a legitimate goal for poets outside the USA. Maybe there is a poetry beyond the prison-camps that the USA has elected so that the tedious can argue against the tedious. (Shepherd was absolutely correct about the danger of camps and allegiances and the restrictions of having to write is a certain way). Gay, as Duncan saw, is a misleading word for the homophilic (Carpenter) experience. If the sexual element disappears from poetry written by men who live men...what kind of poetry is left. As the writer Terry Goldie once asked in an essay on Fanon, what happens to the homosexual when he isn't having sex? Does the homosexual only exist in the act of sex? There is a continual sense within this debate on post-identity poetry that "gay" means something wider than sex, even so, if poets deny a sexual core because they wish to move beyond a limiting definition, then something vital is lost. 

8) Is the change from "gay poet" to "poet" a step back into the closet? Or is it an elevation to Parnassus, an entrance into the world of Poets United?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Robert Duncan, An African Elegy Re-visited

Duncan's "Towards an African Elegy" or "An African Elegy" as it appears in The Years as Catches (1966) is a high-tide mark in Duncan's work and in the history of gay poetry. Sadly, as is the way with criticism in the C21, it is a poem often referenced, but  never actually read. It is a poem that is talked about rather than imagined. The nadir comes with the student aimed essays written on the net that authoritatively state the importance of the work and then use its difficulty to avoid investigating anything of worth. Duncan's Guides in poetry were the strong-willed Modernist visionaries: Pound, H.D. and Olson. And he has come to share their fates-- references to difficulty are allowed to justify poor critical insights and prejudice. 

The best starting point for "An African Elegy" is Thom Gunn's essay in Insights, Working Papers in Contemporary Criticism, Robert Duncan, Scales of the Marvellous (1979). Here, Gunn sketches the conflict behind the poem and states with simplicity the bravery of Duncan's actions in his article in Politics (1944). Duncan made his homosexuality "a matter of public record. His early bravery found few imitators...[.]" (p.143). Duncan did what no other poet had done in that essay, linked sexual openness with poetic openness. "An African Elegy" became the test case for that openness when John Crowe Ransom re-examined the poem and decided it was unfit for publication in the Kenyon Review. Ransom wrote to Duncan in no uncertain terms:

Originally I thought your poem very brilliant, and it occurred to me that Africa was a fine symbol for whatever was dark in the mind, and that you explore the symbol well ...But since then you have written the courageous piece in Politics in which you say that the homosexual poets have usually symbolized their abnormality and palmed it off on the innocent ‘little magazines.’ And you propose in the future that they be less furtive.....As to the present seems to me to have obvious homosexual advertisement, and for that reason not to be eligible for publication [.] 

(Letter dated October 26th, 1944).

As Gunn intelligently points out, other homosexual writers were present in the journal. Duncan's sin was the act of self-advertisement. He was not prepared to be a poet in public and homosexual in private. There was going to be clarity and no wondering about the sexual nature of Duncan...a break with tradition, so no poems with an ungendered "You" (Auden), no poems hiding a love of men behind romantic commonplaces of human friendship (Owen), no poems dressing naked male desire in religious oratory (Hopkins) and no poems translating homosexual desire into heterosexual imagery (Symonds on Michelangelo).

It is often stated that "An African Elegy" is a poem that suffered unduly because there is no homosexual element in the poem and the suppression was just a consequence of Ransom's prejudice towards Duncan's confession. It was not like Winters disliking Whitman for his sexual choices in Song of Myself or disliking the poetry of his student Gunn because of his gay themes. "An African Elegy" is innocent of all such references. That is not really correct! Kenyon Review--under Ransom--was the voice of the New Criticism. Though the personal and textual element of the elegy would have remained outside the interests of Ransom, as a New Critic, and it is here that much of the homosexual context resides, Ransom would have been tuned-in instantly to the "fine symbol" of Africa. And he would have known that just as Africa stood as a representative for the spiritual dark, Duncan's essay in politics had opened with a parallel between the suppression of African Americans and American homosexuals. That parallel would have allowed Ransome to see the released "Negro" in "An African Elegy" as a code for the free homosexual. And that unease would have been re-enforced by Duncan's suggestion in Politics that homosexuality was seen as "unnatural" and maybe "supernatural" and "occult":

The law has declared homosexuality secret, non-human, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime, not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children or rape is seen as a crime—but in an occult sense. 

(Politics, 1944, p. 210).

In his Introduction to The Years as Catches, Duncan acknowledges the rising of the poem. At Berkeley, in 1942, Rosario Jimenez read him Lorca in the original. Out of that encounter with the homosexual Lorca,  the rhetoric of "An African Elegy" began to swell.  Lorca's "Negros. Negros. Negros. Negros" became the pulsating "Negroes, negroes, all those princes" (TYAC, p.34). Behind that moment is the memory that Lorca's poem came from his encounters in the homosexual world of Black Harlem. And further back, the fact that Lorca had ventured abroad to escape his suicidal thoughts. Two elements there, Blackness and suicide, re-surface in Duncan's "An African Elegy". There is a dark under-tow within the poem that references homosexuality.

At the opening of "An African Elegy", Duncan imagines "the groves of Africa" and their symbolic fauna. Emphasis falls on "wildebeest", wild, "zebra"/wild horse, "okapi" and "elephant". It is a world of mixed linguistic roots and Afrikaan, Congolese, Pygmy and Greek origins fuse to picture a place of knotted life. These lead into the "marvelous", "natural jungle" of the "mind". For the rest of the first paragraph, Duncan imagines the primal scene of Africa. In Lorca's poems blood has no doors, but in Duncan's "the Swahili" open the doors of Death and blood. In 1940, Duncan created an impromptu female Swahili dance with friends: this was at a time when he was intrigued by Shamanism and the wild ecstasy that came with dancing. The Shamanic pulse is created through the driving verbs from "There the Swahili" to "barking of dogs".

The second paragraph opens with a composite creature, a man who is "dog-headed and "zebra striped" and walks "like a lion". This creature, which recalls the cynocephali described by ancient Greek visitors to Africa, is Death. From this wild canine creature, Duncan leaps to a pun on Wolf/Woolf, thus rhyming darkness and death with the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Like a dog himself, Duncan follows the "scent" that leads him to the "hounded" Woolf. Transformed in imagination to a " white Afghan hound", like Sohrab the afghan in Between the Acts (1941)--the final creative work before her suicide--Woolf makes her way into the fog. Woolf is white against the black of death, a recurring motif that begins with the "zebra" stripes of line 1. In The H.D. Book (1959 onwards), Duncan discusses Between the Acts as a novel about "giving birth to one's self" (p.493) out of darkness. And this is the direction in which the elegy tends.

The short third paragraph of the elegy, locates the poem in winter, in the fading light, amongst the Eucalyptus Grove at Berkeley. Duncan is waiting for "the negro armies" and life to retreat to the forests and leave his mind in solitude.

Paragraph four of  "An African Elegy" begins a recapitulation of the poem's opening. Duncan return to the wilds of Africa and closes the section by paralleling Africa and himself:

I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

(TYAC, p.34).

Reaching back into the Harlem of Lorca and the Harlem Renaissance, Blackness touches what it was for the White artists: a fascination with the primitive and the spiritual that linked male desire and crossed the racial barrier.

As Woolf became a sign for the mind's darkness, its madness, Desdemona now becomes a sign for desolation. Hearing the rhyme between mona/woman and moan, Desdemona "wails within the body", like a "demon", a howling wolf that has lost a love absorbed by the ego of Othello. 

In paragraph six, the poet cries out. "And I cry" translates the Biblical "awah" and the crying of jackals. Behind the poem lies the symbol of Anubis, the dog-headed/jackal-headed god Of Death. Africa is now a serpent-like entity in the "coild and secretive ear". An Orphic descent into the Underworld begins as Duncan listens to the pulse of blood in the ear. There is a long, winding progression of sound from "Hear!" to "Hear", into "ear", into "hear" again and then into a visual rhyme with "hEARt". The lines mimetically twist as "in/jungles of my body, there/Othello moves. This inter-penetration by sound and blackness is deeply a point where dark Death becomes a "lover like a hound". Lorca despised the racism of North America in Oda al Rey de Harlem, which as already said was the poem that became the ground for "An African Elegy." He cursed North America for degrading its African Americans. Duncan's transformation of Lorca is felt as he recreates the royalty of Africa, of people who "were as giant kings". (Readings that connect the elegy with Conrad's negative Congo and its heart of darkness venture in the wrong direction). A deep example of poetic digestion and transmutation comes in Duncan's remembrance of the line "a tu gran rey prisionero, con un traje de conserje"/"your giant king imprisoned by a door-man's uniform". The Black male was a guardian of doorways in Harlem and this for Duncan inflates with creative breath to an image of his Africa, one in which Africa is a doorway to the spiritual and the double facing Black "janitor" who opens and closes Harlem's doors for its White patrons is Janus (the root of "janitor"), the God who faces two ways, towards Death and Life, who closes one year and opens the next. This lies behind the cryptic line "This was the beginning and ending of the year." 

At the close of the elegy, Duncan declares that "The halls of Africa" are barriers against "the deep". These fictions swell to keep desolation at bay. Gunn notes in his essay that Duncan is "the Seeker" in his poems of the 1940s and there is a continual sense of unfulfilled desires. It is this dissatisfaction that ends the elegy-- that indeed makes the poem an elegy. Seas turn against themselves, into spaces that are empty. The roots of love and sexuality are vacant. The Sirens that emerge out of the waves of sound in the poem are "tired" and untouched. They are passive and undisturbed by the sexual sea that thunders around them. Sadness creeps into the world of the "marvelous" because there is a chasm between Duncan's emergent homosexual desires and poetry, between imagination and reality. "An African Elegy" is a lament by a poet who is trying to unite his body with mind. The emotional image that captures Duncan's disenchantment and discontent, at the close of the elegy, echoes both the sea imagery of the homosexual Hart Crane and the contempt that Duncan pours on the term "gay" and society's attitudes  in his article in Politics:

a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extended to oneself, to life itself.

( Politics p.211).

and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.

(TYAC, p.35)

For Duncan, "gay" is a piece of camp gaiety, light-hearted nonsense (at odds with the spirit of elegy and the depths of homosexual life). The final attack that Duncan launches in his essay is seeded in the earlier elegy and its sadness. When Ransom rejected the poem, he rejected a poem that was in a sense out-of-date. Duncan's essay "The Homosexual in Society" was his answer to "An African Elegy", his step towards healing the schismatic wound identified in the poem; and like a Shaman he knew that the essay's prophecy would be a form of death, for a Shaman must put life on-the-line and fall into Death to utter the truth and bring new life to his tribe. 

Duncan told the truth when he said that the blackness in "An African elegy" was not a metaphor for homosexuality. (Blackness referred to what was hidden from the human and his homosexuality was not hidden from him. That was a mis-reading). Even so, the poem is a poem linked to homosexuality. It is a song by a poet who sees the drowning Orpheus (like Woolf who committed suicide by sinking into the River Ouse) and Duncan, knowing Renaissance mythology according to Ficino and the Italian Hermetic Neo-Platonists, would have known that Orpheus in their version of the myth was ripped apart, his head thrown into the waters, because he turned (as Duncan himself did) from the love of women to men. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels (2015) is the third novel by Brian Selznick. It follows the style of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck whereby the novel is split into a dual narrative, part pictures, part words. The Marvels (as with the previous novels) has been described as a graphic novel, a description that is rather misleading, especially in the case of The Marvels as it does not have a continuous word-picture unity--the comic style. The book is structured into 3 parts: a picture story, then a word story, then a picture story that acts as a coda to parts 1 and 2. Part 1 uses fine tonal drawings to tell the story of the Marvel family, a family of actors, from 1766 to 1900. The focus on actors is a hint to the reader that this is a novel about imagination and how novels work: it is Calvino for younger readers. Also, the drawings maintain a filmic quality, sometimes viewing from a distance, sometimes developing a facial expression over a number of close-ups: these shifting perspectives again alert the reader to the fact that this is a novel about art and how art works-- how a reader constructs a novel as s/he reads. The first part of the story is a cinema, a narrative of emotional movement. Part 2 opens in 1990 and tells the story of Joseph Jervis, who runs away from school in search of his uncle in London, one with the mysterious name of Albert Nightingale. As the narrative unfolds, connections and re-connections are made to Part 1. The prose in this section is clear and well-constructed. It balances conversation with narration and lightly touches the moving background to Joseph's story: he is in love with his schoolboy friend, George Patel, and his uncle is dying from the later stages of AIDS. Part 3 of The Marvels visually reflects on the bond that develops between Albert and Joseph as they age and merge into a contemporary gay couple, Joseph and George. The whole, though it grows through dislocated parts, finally achieves a wonderful coherence. 

Much has been made in the publicity-hype surrounding The Marvels that this is a novel with a gay theme. (Selzick is gay and the personal connection between author and material has been used almost mercilessly as a selling point!) The publishers (Scholastic) and reviewers have been walking a swaying tight-rope in promoting The Marvels. They have felt the need to stress the gay theme as a sign of the novel's originality and then remove any sense of distress that this might cause by referring to the delicate and implicit nature of the gay relationships. "Can you see the gay theme?" "There, there! "Where, where?" "This is gay." ""Oh no, it isn't." "Oh yes, it is". The end result is a pantomime of criticism. Yes, there are gay relationships. No, they are not really dealt with. Albert Nightingale, like Miss Havisham, is a Dickensian eccentric in modern London. There is a reference in the novel to how Princess Diana visited AIDS clinics and shook the hands of AIDS patients. But there is nothing in the novel that probes the conflicts and triumphs of growing up gay. Joseph's isolation is dwelt upon, yet this isolation is attributed to his dysfunctional family, his distant parents, not to any awareness of sexual difference. He learns his difference through the mirror of his uncle and he accepts that difference. There is little in the novel, however, about how Joseph relates to himself and how his love for George/Blink emerges. Selznick should be praised for innocently placing gay love within children's fiction. Publishers and reviewers should be criticised for making too much of this element: The Marvels is not a breakthrough gay novel.

The real success in The Marvels is Selznick's level of creativity. The text is rich with inter-textual references and Selznick credits his (child) readers with an intelligence in a way that much recent children's fiction does not. (What a shame that Waterstones, for example, tucks The Marvels away in an alcove of recent hardback fiction whilst highlighting the latest piece of dross from David Walliams with an in-your-face table display). There are many visual mysteries in Part 1. Angels in America hovers over the novel and elements from Shakespare's The Winter's Tale weave their way throughout the whole novel. Like Shakespeare's magical tale, The Marvels is a story of lost identity. How fitting it is that Leontes Marvel should book his escape on HMS Perdita. And the picture of Oberon Marvel, as Leontes, embracing Elenora Marvel, as Hermione, in The Winter's Tale, after a sixteen year absence, is cleverly re-imagined as the novel leaps 16 years forward from its modern beginning, in its coda, to the love of George and Joseph as they sit reading in Nightingale House. 

As Antigonus proclaims in The Winter's Tale, "dreams are toys". And as the picture of Ariel and Prospero suggests in The Marvels, this novel is "such stuff as dreams are made of". Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton attacked the Romantic novel for its failure to do what novels should do: warn about dangers, offer maps of progress, show the good in action. Gabriel Josipovici gave a better analysis when he said that a novel can only do one thing as a fiction, confess its own fictiveness. The Winter's Tale is ever aware that is a fiction, a lie, and as such it can dream redemptive scenes that reality cannot create. New truths are born, like babies, another key motif in Selznick's latest novel. The same is true of The Marvels. It is a novel of fictive possibilities that sees reading and story-telling as a redemptive act-- stories, like dreams woven by the brain, exist to create sanity in a mentally disordered world.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Jared French. Artist and Hermeticist.

Jared French was born on February 4th, 1905, in Ossining, New York. Aquarian by birth. He studied music, visual art and literature at Amherst College from 1921-1925. The Amherst motto Terras Irradient would stand as a sign for his life as a painter, "Bring light to the Earth" as would his birth image. French's paintings in egg tempera are lit by radiance and the flux of water is a key archetypal symbol in his visual language. French became the lover and friend of Paul Cadmus and it is Cadmus' small and intimate portrait of him, in 1931, that introduces French to the world. 

In this portrait much is coded. The viewer is placed in the lover's position, gazing down at a rumpled bed, suggesting rest after activity. The flowing, rotating hands intimate fluid energy in balance. And the fingers are bookmarks in an early edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book which was smuggled into the USA for the literary minded French. The illegal novel stands for another illegality: the love of two men.

French protected his work avidly. He made few written statements about his art and said little about his life. His life and art was hermetically sealed, consciously so, and he remains an important artist who is mainly mis-understood. As Nancy Grimes has pointed out in Jared French's Myths (1993), French is mistakenly seen as a Magic Realist, an error that goes entirely in the wrong direction as regards his work. Magic Realism sought to present realistic views that had opened up to moments of magic. There is an objectivity underneath Magic Realism. French's main work, from 'Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" onwards (1939) woke up to a subjective, hermetical symbolism that told mythological narratives. The paintings awake magic/imagination with reality through emblematic symbolism.

"Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" describes a moment in USA history: it is 1778 and Boone has been abducted by the Shawnee and inducted into their life. 

But the historical moment is transfigured by French into an archetypal narrative. Boone, like Pierro della Francesca's Christ, awaits to be baptised. The native figure who holds the cup above Boone's head is modelled on John the Baptist. Piero della Francesca's asexual angels have become masculine warriors. With a touch of humour, an implicit connection is made between French and Francesca, the "French-man" such that the new painting becomes a moment of spiritual crisis in French's personal mind and the American psyche. Two of the attendants, like Greek caryatids support the body of Boone and support his weight easily. Whereas the Renaissance French-man depicted Christ in a moment of prayer, awaiting the Holy Ghost, French's Boone adopts a stature that echoes The Crucifixion. This is a cross-roads moment for the adventurer. There has been a tendency to read the painting as one of "service" in which the black figures serve the needs of the white. Nancy Grimes rightly reads against this view, seeing that the physical Shawnee figures are in control and in the process of awakening Boone. But she possibly goes astray in jumping too quickly into Jungian terms and seeing this as a painting about how the white man/white history must enter the black underworld of the unconscious (as typefied by the black attendants) to be cleansed. There is nothing dark about this painting -- it is a well-lit day -- and there is no hint of the psychic disunity that comes with subconscious immersion. For French, Boone's whiteness alludes to a body clothed from sunlight, but here open to to it. The alchemical ablutio washes away his accumulated psychic dirt and presents him with a new solar consciousness. Boone's uncomfortable pink, fleshly, infant innocence is faced with a mature sexuality, one that he has not yet learnt to face: his gaze looks straight on and does not engage with his attendants, though they all observe him. 

If the figures are read from left to right, the eye starts with the figure holding the towel, passes along the arms of Boone, turns at the figure holding the material towards the figure who washes, then to the figure who pours and the figure who kneels and holds the bowl of water. This kneeling figure begins an upward journey of energy back to the starting point. Hermetically, this movement is the ritual pentagram that invokes water and fits with the painting's focus on psychic and cultural cleansing. In her preface to Jared French's Myths, Nancy Grimes notes that though he was a talented figurative artist like the others in his circle of artists, Cadmus, Perlin and Tooker, French drew his figures according to Renaissance proportions inspired by Leon Battista Alberti. Here is the first point illustrated:


In a 1941-2 portrait of George Platt Lynes, Grimes correctly recognises Renaissance proportions at work. (See central image of the artistic and sexual trinity). There is no attempt to create real proportions and the figure is calculated by ratios dictated by head size.

Hermetical composition is also at work in "Washing the Blood from Daniel Boone". Boone's figure exists with a square drawn from the forehead to  central points on the caryatid's upper thighs and then to a point between Boone's feet. (Also, the pentagon of figures around Boone relate to a secondary square frame). French's central male drawing follows Renaissance drawings of the ideal man, the Microcosm. There is a rare photograph among the PaJaMa (PAul Cadmus+JAred French+MArgaret French) archive that shows French modelling for Boone with Cadmus acting as the caryatid on Boone's left. Clearly, French took his own body as the reference for Boone. In the painting, however, his handspan has been shortened to fit the Renaissance, Vitruvian model below.

Mid-career, 1940s-1950s, French began a categorisation of his symbolical world. He envisaged 7 categories (rather like the 7 Liberal Arts of the Medieval and Renaissance World). Each of these categories sub-divided into 7 functions giving 49 contents all in all. This hermetical framework, with echoes of the Red Rose of the Rosy Cross and its 49 petals, was a grid of references, some of which became paintings. The category "Creation" was split into Chaos, Decoration, Painting, Prose, Poetry, Music and Sculpture. This is "Music":

It is unfortunate that French's paintings are largely unknown today and surface only superficially in the world of imagery.

This re-creation of "The Double" as a fashion campaign by Dolce and Gabbana is an act of profanity and stupidity.