Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Lecture 2

Just back fro delivering lecture 2, the more contentious one, but here I am still alive and indeed well fed. I took the sunny afternoon to look round the Baltic opposite, on the Gateshead side of the river, then The Sage, a Foster & Partners building that looks like a huge silver handbag. Also translating. Supper out afterwards with Sean O'B and Bill H. Fair amount of whiskey plus a steak. All well.

The Millennium Bridge has just turned from green-blue to blue-purple. One more lecture tomorrow then a reading. If the sun lasts a longer walk around the Toon.

This is a part of the second talk:

Tom Paulin, in his introduction to the 1986 Faber Book of Political Verse, refers to what he calls, Elizabeth Bishop’s “sophisticated quietism”, and, in talking about “the witty, anecdotal formality of Elizabeth Bishop’s evocation of Trollope’s visit to Washington during the Civil War” adds “if we also know that Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal ancestors were New York State Tories at the time of the American Revolution then we can see that this perfect poem is the work of an ironic conservative patrician”.

‘If we also know…’ seemed to me a strange position to adopt. It seemed rather close to the questions asked of potential cadres and enemies in Eastern Europe in the early Fifties, questions that were asked of my own mother and father. A perfect mirror image, in fact. To be frank, I still have no idea what my maternal ancestors were back in the 19th century since their names vanished a long time ago into the cold dark deep sea, but Paulin made me think I had better check.

“The conservative,” Paulin observes in the same Introduction, “obscures political realities by professing an envy of the ignorant and by shuffling responsibility for historical suffering onto those who aim to increase knowledge by challenging received ideas.” That being the casee, we must conclude, the nature of Bishop as a poet is to obscure political realities, and to shuffle responsibility for historical suffering on to someone other than herself. Furthermore we must assume that she was foredoomed to fail in these important regards, at least partly, on account of her maternal ancestor.

However, Paulin makes an interesting distinction elsewhere in the Introduction, when talking about Dryden’s 'Absalom and Achitophel'. “Politically,” he says, “it is a dirty trick, an inspired piece of black propaganda; aesthetically it is a great masterpiece.”

Here we come to the obvious, indeed ancient, difficulty: the weighting of aesthetic value against moral value, the weighting of first rate poetry against vices such as, say, pretence of envy, the shuffling off of responsibility for historical suffering and the obscuring of political realities. Bearing the weight of such charges in mind as regards Bishop, I strongly suspected the aesthetic, according to the Introduction, must come off worse. The poem would be interrogated first, but eventually the interrogator would win out....

Essentially it is an argument against adopting Eastern European cold war models. Thence to the third.


Will said...

Make sure you get yourself into the Crown Posada G.


very nice pub. One of the few remaining.

Mark Granier said...

Absolutely agree. Paulin can be very weird and his politics often seem sub-adolescent (though I like what he said about Jacko: "Teflon, non-stick music".

But the suspicions about Bishop's work, that tunnel-vision microscope he's using... ridiculous. It's the way he reads Larkin too of course. I seem to recall that he had some marvelously reductive theories even about Joyce's Ulysses (too much about the sea/water, or something along those lines, though I may be misremembering).

George S said...

Went to the Crown Posada. Lovely pub indeed. Taken there byone of my hosts this afternoon. Apparently it used to be green but it's a deep maroon now. Still looks greater. My usual straight Jamesons.

Jamie McKendrick said...

Bishop's ancestry, you're right, is something for which she should not have to answer, but the thrust of Paulin's argument is that 'From Trollope's Journal embodies an "ironic conservative" ethos. (As it's spoken by Trollope, whatever politics can be deduced would be better attributed to him.)But even if one disagrees with Paulin's view, he calls it a "perfect poem" and praises its "witty anecdotal formalism" and these qualities clearly distinguish it from the "conservative" Paulin attacks elsewhere in his introduction, and which you claim "we must conclude" are one and the same. This praise would put his remarks at a considerable distance from the "witch-finding discourse" you detect.
Given that Paulin has since written a long, passionately affirmative essay on Bishop's poems in his book 'Minotaur', and another on her letters, as well as an introduction to her Complete Poems, all of which present her as anything but "conservative" and "patrician", it seems less than fair to pin him to that provocative aside in a piece written twenty years ago.
As for "the marvellously reductive theories even about Joyce's Ulysses" - Mark Grenier on Paulin - I suspect these have been not so much "misrembered" as invented.

George S said...

You haven't seen the rest of the lecture of course, Jamie, in which Paulin is given a great deal of credit, for other things he says, nor can you know that the lecture was about what seemed to me the case at that time in the eighties, nor that the argument is about balancing aesthetic value with moral value.

In any case, I think you are wrong. He does call it a perfect poem etc, much in the way he refers to Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel as marvellous poetry but black propaganda. Nor do I see that telling us what he does about conservatism he can suddenly switch the argument off when it comes to Bishop. It is clear that his argument is that, even if a work of art is perfect, its value is diminished by it being the product of an unattractive morality. I really don't see how that can be avoided.

Furthermore, I don't even see that the Bishop poem is an embodiment of conservative morality. It is voiced for Trollope in the first place and even if it did articulate a specifically conservative consciousness (which I don't believe it does) you might as well accuse Browning of being a wife murderer for having written My Last Duchess. It is a dramatic monologue.

Frankly, the whole business is set up by that ridiculous argument about one of Bishop's maternal ancestors. What kind of argument is that! It is, in my view, simply pernicious. If not malicious, it is so ideologically driven as to be blind and propose that blindness as a way of seeing.

The Introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse is a mixture of the splendid for which I give him credit, and - in my view, which it is my business to give, since I was the one asked - the wrong-headed, occasionally the maliciously wrong-headed. The moral, not aesthetic, smearing of Bishop with her maternal ancestor is the kind of black propaganda of which Dryden is accused, and is exactly what the Stalinist authorities practised against people in the fifties. The second lecture was about what I take to be such wrong-headed western readings of Eastern European poetry, where the major figures were praised for virtues that are implicitly not adopted in the argument.

The three lectures are essentially a defence of the left view of humanity. But that doesn't mean that I have to accept every kind of argument proposed in its defence. A good case doesn't need to be supported by bad arguments.

Mark Granier said...

"As for "the marvellously reductive theories even about Joyce's Ulysses" - Mark Grenier on Paulin - I suspect these have been not so much "misrembered" as invented."

You suspect, do you? I don't know you Jamie, and you certainly don't know me, or you would know that I don't "invent" (i.e. tell lies) about what writers may or may not have written about other writers. That said, I regret making that comment apropos of nothing much, though I believe that idle chatter is slightly less reprehensible than accusatory finger-pointing.

As I said (and unfortunately misspelled) I may have misremembered. If I did, my apologies to Paulin. I will look into it.

Jamie McKendrick said...

Mark,it was me who misspelled "misremembered" not you, and as you say I don't know you - one reason why I suspected you had "invented" (invented as in: on the basis of nothing) these ideas. If I'd thought you were telling ill-motivated lies I would have said so. But misremembering requires something to have been imperfectly remembered. If you can find anything in Paulin's writings even vaguely resembling these theories on Joyce then it's me who should apologize - but "idle chatter" can often sound like "accusatory finger-pointing" even if not intended as such.
And it's true, George, I haven't seen your lecture - much of which I may agree with. Whilst I see the logic of your argument, I'm still not convinced Paulin had Bishop in mind in his characterization of the "conservative" - my feeling is that he wanted other poems in the anthology than the Dryden example which could represent aesthetic triumphs but which he didn't ideologically warm to - and so alighted on that Bishop poem. (To have written a "perfect poem" is no small feat - I wouldn't mind having received such a denigration!)
I thought I'd made my disagreement with Paulin's reading of this poem very clear by writing "As it's spoken by Trollope whatever politics can be deduced would be better attributed to him". What I was pointing out was that all of Paulin's ample writings would seem to make it evident that he himself disagrees with that earlier brief and dodgy judgement. In particular, his 'Minotaur' essay is one of the strangest and most illuminating things written on her work and, in my view, more than makes amends.

Mark Granier said...

Fair enough Jamie. And I will look into it, because I really do believe there is some substance to what I said.

George S said...

The lecture was about the situation in the mid-eighties, Jamie, and the anthology is dated 1986. I was trying to say why I found it difficult in view of the contrast TP suggests existed between western poets with no sense of history and eastern european poets responsibly full of it. I didn't think a case could be based on that kind of comparison.

I think we may disagree on the use of Bishop in the general thrust of the argument. I found, and still do,some aspects of TP's introduction morally over-directive / overbearing and felt Bishop - despite that 'perfect' - got caught up in some heavy polemic.

The whole was a bit more Savonarola than, to take a conveniently relevant example, Trollope's Warden.

Should it come to a choice between the Bonfire of the Vanities man and the Warden, I would be for the latter.