Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Moderns: Pound, Cocteau, and Homosexuality

It is doubtful that Ezra Pound ever gave any systematic consideration to male homosexuality. By the time he settled in London in 1908 the Oscar Wilde controversy had subsided, so that Pound’s affected “aesthetic”style of clothing was unlikely to earn him any unwelcome aspersions of inversion.

In those apprentice years he wrote tolerantly of poets who extolled other males “in Greece and Pagan countries” (letter to W.C/ Williams, 21/10/08). Later he acquired a kind of locker-room homophobia, to judge from the coarse “Tale of the Honest Sailor” that concludes Canto XII. At a more serious level the joke attests Pound’s adoption of the medieval parallel of sodomy and usury as two forms of sterility. During his St. Elizabeths period Pound was sometime heard to lament the “pansification” of America.

These negative attitudes, including the characteristic hardening in older years, were arguably part of the mindset of the period. In addition, there may have been, as conjectured by Hugh Kenner, some element of sexual politics. Kenner has postulated that Wyndham Lewis and his associates reacted against Bloomsbury intellectuals (Forster, Strachey, and Woolf) by flaunting their own machismo.

One commitment, though, would have deterred Pound from out-and-out homophobia-- his attachment to ancient Greece. He could scarcely have remained unaware of the major role of same-sex love in that source culture.

Pound shared with the openly gay Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) an interest in reviving the classics so as to make them relevant to modern times. Unlike the mischievous Pablo Picasso, Pound refrained from attacking his French colleague on sexual-orientation grounds. He was always deferential to Cocteau.

Apart from the difference in orientation, the two poets present a number of striking similarities. Cocteau’s “Cap de Bonne Espérance” (1918), a homage to the aviator Roland Garros, is arguably the first long modernist poem in any language. Its collage-like techniques anticipate some of those found in The Cantos.

During the 1920s and 30s Cocteau reworked ancient Greek themes, including his dramatic versions of “Antigone,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Orpheus.” Pound entered this field later with his renderings of Sophocles’ “Elektra” (1951) and “The Women of Trachis” (1953).

Both sought to integrate modernist music into the theater. In 1917 Cocteau wrote the scenario for the ballet “Parade,” with music by Erik Satie and sets by Picasso. “Oedipus Rex” (1925), with its Latin text, was a close collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. With the help of George Antheil, Pound wrote his own score for his opera “Le Testament de Villon” (1926). This was followed five years later when, at the behest of the BBC, he began work on another opera, “Cavalcanti.”

Informed by a certain aesthetic approach, both poets trended to the right in politics, leading to flirtation with the German occupier during World War II (Cocteau) and outright support of Mussolini (Pound).

In their later years both retired to pleasant seats by the Mediterranean, only to be compelled by circumstances to give them up. Still, their last years were blessed by the attention of faithful companions, Edouard Dermit (Cocteau) and Olga Rudge (Pound).

Finally, the two poets have at last made their way into the respective literary pantheons of their nations, Cocteau with two volumes in the Pléiade series (1999-2003) and Pound with one in the Library of America (2003).

Machiavelli's example

As I teeter on the verge of retirement, I naturally seek advice from others who have already made this transition. I wish to manage properly this new world of freedom. (Some would say that it is not so new, since we academics already have a lot of freedom in the form of flextime and being able to chose what we lecture and publish on.) The best model I have found stems from almost five centuries ago--from Niccolo' Machiavelli.

In 1512 the returning Medici threw Machiavelli out of Florence. He took refuge in his modest family farm in the Tuscan countryside. From that place of exile he sketched (Dec. 10, 1513) the following portrait of his daily routine.

"I rise in the morning with the sun, and I go off to a wood of mine which I am having cut down, where I stop for two hours to see what was done the day before.... Leaving the wood I go to a spring and thence to some bird-traps of mine. I have a book with me, Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, Tibullus, Ovid or the like. I read about their passions and their loves. I remember my own and dwell agreeably on these thoughts for a while. Then I go down the road and into the tavern. I talk to the passers-by; I ask what news of their villages. ...

"When evening comes I return home and go into my study, and at the door I take off my daytime dress covered in mud and dirt, an put on royal and curial robes; and then decently attired I enter the courts of the ancients, where affectionately greeted by them, I partake of that food which is mine alone and for which I was born; where I am not ashamed to talk with them and inquire the reasons for their actions; and they out of their human kindness answer me, and for four hours at a stretch I feel no worry of any kind; I forget all my troubles, I am not afraid of poverty or of death. I give myself up entirely to them. And because Dante says the understanding does not constitute knowledge unless it is retained in the memory, I have written down what I have learned from their conversations and composed a short work "The Prince." ..."

Plato famously complained that books, unlike people, cannot really converse. But this, I think, is beside the point. We can have meaningful colloquy with them--even though it may not lead to writing "The Prince"! Of course there is no reason to don royal or curial robes--clean pyjamas will do. At all events I am starting these colloquies in my study. The first, in collaboration with my students, is with the architect Le Corbusier. Modern classics will also be engaged. From time to time I will offer some results of these colloquies. Corbu, though, may be too complicated.

The question of Machiavelli's sexuality sometimes arises. The short answer, I think, is that he was, like many Florentine figures of the time, bisexual. Sometimes his "womanizing" is mentioned to exclude any homosexuality. That is an absurd either-or. Machiavelli wrote at least one explicit gay poem, and was known to frequent the shop of his friend Donato, who kept it staffed by a changing cast of attractive youths.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Nanoprinciples (I)

For several years I have been seeking to identify and describe what I term nanoprinciples. These are mechanisms that have a limited scope. They stand at the opposite pole from grand theories, such as Darwinism and globalization.

Here is an example from the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights. After the forty thieves had ascertained that someone had been taking away treasure from their cave, they sent a spy to the city where Ali Baba lived. Through a ruse, the spy found the house. Fearing that he would not be able to relocate it for his comrades in the winding labyrinth of streets he marked it with a sign in chalk. Late, the servant girl Marjana noted the sign as she came home from the market. Taking up some chalk, she made the same sign on a number of neighboring houses. When the forty thieves arrived they could not detect which house Ali Baba lived in, as the distinctive sign was no longer distinctive.

A related example comes from the 1970s, when the heiress Patti Hearst was abducted. After she became involved in some of the crimes of the Symbionese Liberation Army, her captors, authorities redoubled their efforts to find her. These were complicated by a number of young women who wore T-shorts saying "I'm Patti Hearst."

This principle, though interesting, is hard to apply In the case of Marjana (the name is spelled several different ways) her sharp eyes detected the sign and the means of replicating it were easy. The Patti Hearst complication stemmed from the radical mood of the time, which generated enough young people who were willing to help produce the "noise" that clogged the efforts to find Hearst.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Representative works that are not representative

Many critics would identify two novels, "The Nephew of Rameau" and "Jacques le Fataliste," as the masterworks of Denis Diderot, the French enlightenment thinker. Yet Diderot seems to have regarded these creations as mere bagatelles, not bothering to publish them during his lifetime. It is fortunate that the manuscripts even survived. Perhaps Diderot did not have a good understanding of his own contribution, taken as a whole. But can we be certain that we have a better understanding than the author himself did?

With the painter Francisco Goya the case may be even worse. For some time, the "black paintings" have been viewed as his most quintessential works. Yet a Spanish scholar who has examined the matter thoroughly holds that the black paintings are not by Goya, and were created after his death.

A clue may come from Rabelais. Many, from Diderot to Le Corbusier, quote from his "Fifth Book." Yet most scholars view this last book as of doubtful authenticity. It may be that the forger understood Rabelais well enough to create a work that was even more "Rabelaisian" than the master's own handiwork.

Van Meegeren got away with his forged Vermeer "masterwork" for a time because critics viewed is as superbly Vermeerian. Conclusion--long live the pastiche!

Transmuting metals into laws

Common parlance speaks of the principle of the "iron law" of necessity. This principle could be extended. True, there is such a thing as the Golden Rule, but this does not purport to be a law. We can speak of persons being "mercurial," but this adjective stems from the planet, not the metal.

What if we extend the device to the entire periodic table? Here are a few examples.

1) There is the helium law of frivolity. According to this principle any new factoid about Laci Peterson will immediately oust new massacres in Darfur.

2) Then there is the platinum law of luxury. People commonly seek to upgrade their taste preferences, extending them upwards into levels of expenditure they cannot afford. (Thus leading toe the plastic law of credit card debt--except that plastic is not an element in the periodic table.)

3) There follows the leaden law of the quotidian. Most days are fairly dull, part of what Germans call "der graue Alltag."

4) The uranium law of instability indicates that some delicate undertakings may blow up on us. Fortunately the effects of this law are rarely encountered.,

Setting out

At the end of this calendar year I will be retiring after thirty years of teaching art history at Hunter College. My new leisure will offer time to complete several books, including my reflections on art history, entitled "The Mind of the Beholder" and "Homolexica," a sequel to my 1985 "Homolexis," now out of date.

My blog will be used for shorter comments. I am a strong believer in comparisons. For this reason I will often make reference to earlier events, theories and thinkers--not to mention those from other cultures. By the same token, there is meaning in Croce's dictum that all history is contemporary history. This means, I think, that all our delvings into the past are colored by current interests. But they should not be determined by contemporaneity. There is nothing more provincial than present-mindedness.