Thursday, March 17, 2005

Open letter to a great scholar

Dear Professor Marjorie Perloff,

Permit me to express my admiration for your scintillating autobiography, The Vienna Paradox, which has just appeared. This book reveals that you and I had many potential points of contact—in Rome, London, New York, and California—though to my knowledge we never actually met. You were born in 1931, I came along in 1934. The big difference is that during the 1940s you were commendably seeking to Americanize yourself, while as the decade drew to a close I became obsessed with the idea of leaving America for good--hopelessly naïve, vulgarian, hucksterish, morophilic America. I little understood how lucky I had been to have an easy (though not privileged) upbringing in Los Angeles (then balmy, mostly smog-free, and "laid back," but not now). My parents were not connected with the Central European intellectuals who settled in the Southland (many of them temporarily), but perhaps a whiff of their byunsky disdain reached me. In college I worshiped Arnold Schoenberg, but too late to meet him, as he was dead by the time I discovered him. Had I knocked at his Brentwood door, he would have given me a scowl and said "go away." I would have thought that was just fine—surely he was composing some new masterpiece! Perhaps my intrusion would serve to add a slight dodecaphonic frisson, to enhance the piece.

Of course you went West and I went East—though not so far in the end, since for quite a while I have been settled on the West Side of Manhattan.

The present encounter is not my first with your work. I discovered The Futurist Moment shortly after it first appeared. Last year I assigned your book to the students in my abstract art course at Hunter College. I could not have made a better choice. On first reading the book I was struck by the fact that you had had many of the same insights I had had, but were able express them with incomparably greater power. I marveled at your linguistic ease, as you shuttled about among French, Italian, German, and Russian. This multilingual competence is what the project ideally called for—but previously had been unable to attract.

Who is this Marjorie Perloff, anyway? I asked myself. I had an imprecise recollection that she was a champion of modern and contemporary poetry—and that was good. But, hmm, probably she was born in Iowa City as Marjorie Smith. During her junior year abroad she met and married an American Jewish student whose surname was Perloff. But that wouldn’t account for the superb multilingual competence--superior, I think, even to George Steiner’s. Of course I was wrong about the Iowa bit, as I find from your newest book, in which all is explained by your rich Viennese family background and necessary departure from Austria on the morrow of Hitler’s takeover.

My family was not Jewish. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents were Communists—an outcome not uncommon for a 1930s intellectual like my stepfather. The stereotype that most Communists were Jews is untrue—my stepfather’s best friend in the Party was a Norwegian-American—but we socialized with a number of comrades of Jewish extraction (as the phrase goes), who impressed me with their sincerity and dedication. They were no more interested in cultivating the Jewish religion than my parents were in keeping up the Methodism in which they had been brought up. We were all good atheists.

Goodness knows what would have happened to us if we had actually immigrated to the Soviet Union, so superior in every respect, I was told. Still, my parents, wisely, weren’t having any of that. "We are Americans," they said. "We will stand and fight for social justice in our own country." And indeed they did do their bit. To the evident annoyance of our neighbors, in the 1940s my parents had dinner parties for their African American friends. It is not hard to see that my later (cultural) disdain for America was a kind of ghostly echo of my parents’ socioeconomic critique. Eventually, though, I followed them in electing to stick it out on these shores.

As far as Communism goes, Tito’s defection in 1948 killed the thing for me. But I was still not reconciled to America, which I found hopelessly crass and materialistic. I had decided that I would leave—forever. But what would be my new country? In that immediate postwar era, there seemed to be only three candidates: England, France, and Italy. After entertaining fantasies of being admitted as a student at Oxford, I put England on the back burner. After all, that country had foisted the English language on us, a slovenly parlance now serving as the instrument of cocacolonization, debasing standards throughout the world. (Had I known that some of the founders of our Republic had advocated, somewhat wistfully, that ancient Greece be our national tongue, I would have been sorely disappointed that they didn’t get their way.) Be that as it may, I taught myself French and Italian from books. Owing to a job in Rome, I eventually became fluent in the latter tongue.

In 1949 at the start of high school I discovered T.S. Eliot, then at the height of his fame and influence. After I had read everything of Eliot’s I could get hold of (and the LA Public Library was well stocked), I naturally gravitated to Pound. Here was the real thing I concluded, of which Eliot was just a sanitized replica. At the time I was also reading Arnold J. Toynbee (now in my view unfairly dismissed). Yet only in writing these lines did I become aware of the seeming connection. It was as if Pound had found out all the things that Toynbee had, and then selected the "best bits"--culture at its mostest, apparently a more useful service. Later I became aware that Pound just made a series of surgical raids, some quite arbitrary, and returned with the loot. That is not meant as a criticism of his poetic abilities, which were of a high order, but a stricture about the brand of historiosophy he espoused. From Pound, though, I did get interested in sinology—a promissory note I haven’t yet redeemed. In 1957 I went twice to see Pound at his alcove at St. Elizabeths, where I met Dorothy Pound, John Kasper and other assorted acolytes. Once I got back to New York City where I was then living, I dropped these disciples, except for a Chinese-American named Wang, who is mentioned in one of the late Cantos. Bizarrely, Wang had taken it upon himself to form a White Citizens’ Council in Manhattan. In so doing he inadvertently exposed the incoherence of the racial categories posited by the St. Elizabeths cabal.

As an undergraduate at UCLA I had gravitated to the field of art history. Following this commitment, I went in 1956 to enroll in the Ph.D. program at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, then staffed by an amazing professoriate derived almost entirely from what we later were to term the Transatlantic Migration. We sat literally spellbound before their eloquence. Just to give one example, the classicist Karl Lehmann was reputed to have memorized Pauly-Wissowa, the ultimate encyclopedia of Greece and Rome in 39 volumes. He didn’t need to, as he knew far more than was contained in that capacious oracle. At IFA, of course, the imperative of learning German imposed itself on me. I had been drawn to Goethe in the late forties, but (except for the lyric poetry) the exposure never took. I have a lingering impression that Faust is a kind of higher Grand Guignol. Somehow Goethe seems incapable of recapturing the esteem he once so widely enjoyed in the English-speaking world.

I cannot quite get out of my head the sense that the Nazis hijacked the German language and abused her so viciously that she never recovered. There, and only there, I tend to agree with Adorno. But I’m not prepared to give up on German. Today, teetering on the edge of retirement, I try to keep up with my four "second languages" of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. In fact I am writing a linguistic book involving comparison of all of them. So I guess one doesn’t have to have a European background to make this commitment. But real competence in even one foreign language is rare among Americans nowadays.

After a wonderful spell in Italy, it seemed only logical to complement my IFA experience with a stay (which extended to four years) in London, home of the Warburg-Courtauld Institute (of course they are quite different, but because of the Journal they had blended in my mind). I preferred hanging out at the Warburg, where for three years I attended Gombrich’s seminar on a weekly basis, becoming thoroughly brainwashed (not!). Despite his verbal glibness, I have come to see Gombrich’s ideas as shallow and repetitive, revolving obsessively around the idea that the only significant thing that has gone on in the entire history of art has been the quest for ever more adequate devices to achieve illusion. (The Futurist Moment ought to dispel that notion once and for all.) Gombrich entertained a poorly disguised contempt for both medieval and modern art, which he viewed as vehicles of dangerous irrationalism, of the para-Nazi variety. He hated Hegel, but still took the money from the Hegel prize.

The London eminence who really left an enduring impression on me was Karl Popper through his seminar at the London School of Economics. I was only able to attend his seminar a few times, but the books have consolidated themselves together in my mind to make up the only faith—a rational one, I hope—that I shall ever have.

Now for what I told you at the outset. I can make (I think) a small contribution to the material you presented in The Futurist Moment. Cendrars’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway has a possible source in Apollinaire’s pornographic novel Les Onze Mille Verges, where the concluding chapters describe the travels of the hero Mony Vibescu on that recently constructed railway line, a journey that also involves (if I recall correctly) a prostitute.

The other point concerns Walter Benjamin’s famous auras. All sorts of possible sources have been proposed, but to me the most likely one is Theosophical auras. The 1901 book Thought-Forms by Besant and Leadbeater (which so influenced Vassily Kandinsky) illustrates them in vivid color.

With best regards, and undying thanks for the illumination you have afforded,

Wayne R. Dynes