February 27, 2012

Beginning Lent with Paradise Regained

This year, Lent coincides with the more intensive part of my thesis writing. Luckily, the main focus of my work right now is Milton's Paradise Regained, a poetic account of Christ's forty day stint in the wilderness. First published along with Samson Agonistes, the brief epic celebrates the negative virtues of renunciation and resistance, as the Son of God proceeds through the trials of Satanic temptation. As with all of Milton's most rewarding poetry, it presents a story that appears deceptively simple and morally obvious; but, like its Old Testament counterpart Samson Agonistes (which reinterprets Samson's last moments of captivity through the medium of classical tragedy), Paradise Regained has a strangeness all its own.

At the heart of this poem is the problem of relating to God without treating him as a calculating evil genius, a cosmic salesman, or (the most tempting of all) an instrument for personal gain. Rather than offering an easy set of moral guidelines or applications, the poem puts its emphasis on the uneasy posture of interpretation, an active disposition that throws the world of appearances into a state of radical contingency. Gone are the totalizing grandeur and the aesthetic pleasure one encounters Paradise Lost. That fertile Garden with all its harmonious comforts has been replaced by a desolate wilderness, cut off from human community. This is no simple exercise; it's a spiritual warzone. Here, rather than on the cross, is where Milton's Jesus defeats Satan and recovers paradise for humankind.

In 1816, William Blake began work on 12 illustrations for Paradise Regained. I'll be posting more of them, along with some further thoughts on Milton's brief epic, as Lent continues. This pair corresponding to the first temptation (below) gives you a sense of the dialectical movement that the poem establishes over and over again.

The First Temptation

Christ Refusing the Banquet Offered by Satan

February 14, 2012

Fiona Apple and a pathology called "love"

Last week, a friend's passing reference to Fiona Apple as one of Lana Del Rey's predecessors got me up in arms. I've been listening to Apple's 2005 album, Extraordinary Machine, a lot lately, and rumors about her long-awaited follow-up, which could be released a few months from now, have also just begun to circulate.Valentine's Day seems like the right occasion to rehash some of the reasons why I find her music so interesting, and why I go on the defensive when I hear her get linked to other popular female singer-songwriters.

"Not About Love" - Jon Brion's unreleased version: 

The controversy surrounding Extraordinary Machine's release is a bit muddy, but it'll help to explain why I felt it necessary to post two very different versions of the same song above. Originally thought to be delayed because Apple's label, Sony, doubted its commercial viability, the long awaited album had fans writing letters and mailing apples to label execs as part of the "Free Fiona" campaign (my roommate at the time was peripherally involved through his Fiona Apple message board--we even had a "Free Fiona" poster on the door of our dorm room). As it turns out, there was an original version, produced by Jon Brion, that was shelved because Apple wasn't happy with it; she then reworked most of the songs with a different producer (Mike Elizondo) and released the album.

Elizondo's finished product was still a good collection of songs, but the unreleased version with arrangements by Jon Brion (the demos of which had leaked several months before the official version came out) was, at least in my eyes, clearly superior. Apple felt that Brion's instrumentation had nearly taken over her songs: as such, they represented his musical taste more than they did her artistic identity (The two versions of "Not About Love," posted above, are a great example of this). But, for me, Brion's production accented the strangeness of Apple's romantic vision. What ended up sounding like sugary pop on the Sony's official release had a much darker, perverse quality to it when accompanied with Brion's string arrangements. The songs on his version of Extraordinary Machine nearly collapse under their own weight. If it's really "not about love" for Apple, it's because it's impossible for her to align herself with the security of conventional romance: instead, the kind of consuming love she articulates is pathological ("Get Him Back"), at times violent ("Window"), and often turns out to be solipsistic ("Better Version of Me"). Here's what's probably the best example of what I'm trying to get at.

And, naturally, with all this talk of psychosis, and narcissism, I think of Zizek, whose Lacanian remarks on love are, I think, realized in some of Fiona Apple's more compelling songs:
More generally, when one is passionately in love and, after not seeing the beloved for a long time, asks her for a photo to keep in mind her features, the true aim of this request is not to check if the properties of the beloved still fits the criteria of my live, but, on the contrary, to learn (again) what these criteria are. I am in love absolutely, and the photo a priori CANNOT be a disappointment - I need it just so that it will tell me WHAT I love... What this means is that true love is performative in the sense that it CHANGES its object - not in the sense of idealization, but in the sense of opening up a gap in it, a gap between the object's positive properties and the agalma, the mysterious core of the beloved (which is why I do not love you because of your properties which are worthy of love: on the contrary, it is only because of my love for you that your features appear to me as worthy of love). It is for this reason that finding oneself in the position of the beloved is so violent, traumatic even: being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which causes love. Everyone knows Lacan's definition of love ("Love is giving something one doesn't have..."); what one often forgets is to add the other half which completes the sentence: "... to someone who doesn't want it." And is this not confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declared passionate love to us - is not the first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us?

In a kind of Hegelian twist, love does not simply open itself up for the unfathomable abyss in the beloved object; what is in the beloved "more than him/herself," the presupposed excess of/in the beloved, is reflexively posited by love itself. Which is why true love is far from the openness to the "transcendent mystery of the beloved Other": true love is well aware that, as Hegel would have put it, the excess of the beloved, what, in the beloved, eludes my grasp, is the very place of the inscription of my own desire into the beloved object - transcendence is the form of appearance of immanence. As the melodramatic wisdom puts it, it is love itself, the fact of being loved, that ultimately makes the beloved beautiful.
 From With or Without Passion: What's Wrong with Fundamentalism. Part 1.

February 7, 2012

Rowan Williams on Charles Dickens

The Archbishop of Canterbury's commemorative address, given at Westminster Abbey on the bicentenary of Charles Dickens.

It’s difficult to tell the truth about human beings.  Every novelist knows this in a special way, and when Dickens sets out to tell the truth about human beings he does it outrageously, by exaggeration, by caricature.  The figures we remember most readily from his works are the great grotesques.  We have, we think, never met anyone like them, and then we think again.

The truth is extreme, the truth is excessive.  The truth about human beings is more grotesque and bizarre than we can imagine.  And Dickens’ generous embrace of human beings does not arise out of a chilly sense of what is due to them, but out of a celebratory feeling that there is always more to be discovered.  Even his villains are exuberant.  It was George Orwell who pointed out that when Mr Murdstone sets David Copperfield one of those appalling sums in his unhappy childhood, it is couched in terms of calculating numbers of Double Gloucester cheeses. Orwell points out that a real Murdstone would never have thought of the cheeses - it’s part of that overflow, that unnecessary excessive sense of what is human that takes us from page to page in Dickens, eyebrows raised and breath bated.

Dickens is the enemy not so much of an unjust view of human beings, as of a boring view of human beings.  He loves the poor and the destitute, not from a sense of duty but from a sense of outrage that their lives are being made flat and dead.  He wants them to live.  He wants them to expand into the space that should be available for human beings to be what God meant them to be.  In Hard Times, he left us, of course, one of the most unforgettable pictures of what education looks like if it forgets that exuberance and excess, and treats human beings as small containers for information and skill.

And that sense of the grotesque is, strange as it may sound to say it, one of the things that makes Dickens a great religious writer.  As we’ve heard [in the earlier reading from The Life of Our Lord] he could write simply and movingly about Christ.  He could, in A Christmas Carol, leave us one of the greatest modern myths arising out of the Christian story.  But he had relatively little time for conventional religion, and no time at all for those who substituted conventional religion for that exuberant celebration of the human, which he was interested in.

[Extract from Bleak House] - “Mr Chadsbans he wos a prayin wunst at Mr Sangby’s and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a speakin’ to hisself, and not to me.  He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out nothink on it.”

The Chadsbans and the Jellabys and all those other (again, I’m afraid) unforgettably exuberant hypocrites in his books – these are the people for whom at the end of the day, he wishes judgement to be passed.

But that sense of excess in the human spirit and the human heart also leads on to another side of Dickens – equally serious, equally religious, much more disturbing – that side of Dickens which makes him indeed a novelist to stand alongside the very greatest imaginative spirits in Europe.  And this is Dickens’ sense of the tragic.  Dickens writes about people ‘in hell’, and he knows what hell is like.  He describes people in the hell of deceit and self-deceit -  William Dorrit, Mr. Merdle, Lady Dedlock - people who cannot live, literally, when their myths about themselves are destroyed.  Because part of this sense of exuberance in Dickens is the recognition that all of us live by projecting myths and dramas about ourselves.  We tell stories about ourselves, we write scripts for ourselves, and we love to act them out.

But what happens when those stories and those scripts are so far from reality that we cannot actually survive the touch of truth?  Tragedy in Dickens is so often about that appalling moment when a myth is shattered, and a person with it.  And along with the hell of deceit and of self-deceit, there are the hells of obsession – of Mr. Monks and Miss Havisham, Mrs. Clennam and Bradley Headstone.  The people who have lost all their freedom, and for once are losing their exuberance because they have been taken prisoner by something in themselves, locking them in, weighing them down.  They are part of Dickens’ unparalleled portraiture of self-destruction.  And perhaps these depictions of hell – the hells of self-deceit and obsession and self-destruction – perhaps the depictions of these hells owed something to Dickens’ own painful self-awareness.  A man who recognised the gap in his own life, so often, between aspiration and reality; a man who in his own exuberance drove himself towards self-destruction – and yet in that very process, again as we have heard, drew out extraordinary levels of sheer joy, festive celebratory hearing, of what he had to say.

A man, then, who portrays human beings excessively and extravagantly.  A man who portrays human beings in hell.  And yet when we read him, it does not read like bad news.  Because what does he have to say at the end of the day about redemption?  In some ways not a great deal.  Or rather there is a tension again and again in his books between a carefully, neatly resolved happy ending, and an immense burden of recognised, almost unbearable, unresolved suffering.  He achieves the balance of those two most perfectly, for one reader, in Bleak House, where the past tense of Esther’s narrative is balanced by the present tense of unhealed suffering, the rain still falling on the Lincolnshire wolds.  But in that book, which one reader at least thinks is perhaps his most profoundly theological – though he wouldn’t thank me for that – in that book, we have one of the strangest, most shocking images that he ever gives us of compassion and mercy, and that is the figure of Sir Leicester Dedlock.  At the very end of Bleak House, left alone in his decaying mansion, holding open the possibility of forgiveness and restoration, “I revoke no dispositions I have made in her favour” says Sir Leicester, with his typical dryness about his wife who has fled from him in guilt and terror.  And in that appallingly stiff phrase we hear something of the hope of mercy.  Almost silent, powerless, Sir Leicester after his stroke, dying slowly in loneliness, and stubbornly holding open the possibility that there might be, once again, love and harmony.

“We may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace”, says Dickens for his children.  And perhaps for us as grownups, or people who might quite like to be grownups one day, that image of the hope of God’s forgiveness is shockingly, startlingly, expressed in that lonely figure stubbornly holding the door open, revoking no dispositions made in our favour.  Powerless to enforce love or justice, and yet indestructibly, even extravagantly, offering the only kind of love that is appropriate – the extravagant and excessive nature of human beings.  An utterly unreasonable compassion, which because of its utter unreasonableness can change everything.

February 6, 2012

G.K. Chesterton on Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, David Foldvari (2011)
No man was more filled with the sense of this bellicose basis of all cheerfulness than Dickens. He knew very well the essential truth, that the true optimist can only continue an optimist so long as he is discontented. For the full value of this life can only be got by fighting; the violent take it by storm. And if we have accepted everything, we have missed something -- war. This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce. And it appears strange to me that so few critics of Dickens or of other romantic writers have noticed this philosophical meaning in the undiluted villain. The villain is not in the story to be a character; he is there to be a danger -- a ceaseless, ruthless, and uncompromising menace, like that of wild beasts or the sea. For the full satisfaction of the sense of combat, which everywhere and always involves a sense of equality, it is necessary to make the evil thing a man; but it is not always necessary, it is not even always artistic, to make him a mixed and probable man. In any tale, the tone of which is at all symbolic, he may quite legitimately be made an aboriginal and infernal energy. He must be a man only in the sense that he must have a wit and will to be matched with the wit and will of the man chiefly fighting. The evil may be inhuman, but it must not be impersonal, which is almost exactly the position occupied by Satan in the theological scheme.

But when all is said, as I have remarked before, the chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness, and some prefer to call optimism, is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. And this word "eccentricity" brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter than any other. It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as "a strange world," though he has seen no other. We feel that all there is is eccentric, though we do not know what is the centre. This sentiment of the grotesqueness of the universe ran through Dickens's brain and body like the mad blood of the elves. He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top heavy and wild, he saw every man's nose twice as big as it was, and very man's eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety -- the only real basis of any philosophical gaiety. This world is not to be justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not to be justified as the best of all possible worlds. Its merit is not that it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly unexplained. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.
--from G.K. Chesterton's Charles Dickens (1906)