May 2010


Attempting, once again, to restart the long-moribund Poem of the Week feature, though I imagine that the definition of  “week” is going to remain flexible.* You’ll note that this entry doesn’t have the usual linkage and fun with GoogleBooks and Wikipedia – I’m somewhat short of internet in my new apartment, so am trying this crazy method of writing offline instead. Among other things, this means I didn’t bother to look up the date of the poem. And this is all pretty much just stream of consciousness with the occasional nod towards close reading. (Even more than it was before.) If we hate this, we can figure out a way to do the other thing.

This week’s theme? Don’t just do something, sit there!**

296. Magna Est Veritas – Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevails or not.

I was on an honest-to-God vacation last week, which included a couple of days at the San Francisco Zen Center (you wanna talk about “sit me down…”) and, more resonantly, several more in Santa Cruz, which is on a bay and includes the ocean crashing against high cliffs, though perhaps with more surfing culture than Patmore had in mind. Nevertheless, I was initially drawn to this poem because it seemed to resonate with my experience of Northern California.

And I’m attracted to this poem because, like so many of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s selections, it doesn’t entirely shy away from the commonplace and the cliché, while at the same time twisting it just enough to be interesting, to briefly undermine the typical. It doesn’t seem particularly earthshattering to me to that “tumultuous life” would be contrasted with “great repose,” though at the same time I wonder what’s doing the living and the reposing. That we are near cliffs and away from the town suggests that we are not witnessing a bustling port scene, but this is pretty thin as far as nature poetry goes. I mean, not that I think he’s trying to write a poetry of nature here. There’s just a certain extravagance there, as if he’s going out of his way to refuse the description.

Same thing with the following lines. Really, the tide goes in and out every day? Thanks, Victorian poetry! But there is something incredibly striking about the use of “purposeless, glad” to describe the ocean. At first glance, I took it as a welcome change from the fraught, churning, and highly overdetermined “Sea of faith” that we all associate with “Dover Beach.” (And there is something of the anti-“Dover Beach” here now that I think about it.) I don’t say that just because I enjoy poking Matthew Arnold every chance I get. We shouldn’t, I think, underestimate the effort that it took – takes – to see the natural world outside of a religious discourse. It’s not just a matter of having to deal with Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” – sometimes it’s harder to let go of the narrative when you’re looking at something beautiful. (I participated in various forms of Christian camping for over a decade; I know that of which I speak.) On a closer examination, the “purposeless” also seems to gesture towards the Kantian sublime, reminding us that aesthetic judgments are supposed to be ends in themselves, or almost no ends at all, and that the vastness of the ocean itself overruns and smashes any use or purpose we might see in it. What I want to say about the “glad” is less formed right now. I was tempted just to pretend I forgot it, or that it was a way of tempering the purposelessness, but of course “glad” and “purposeless” aren’t opposites, and perhaps the image we’re supposed to have here is something more like “pure,” undirected joy – the sense that a lack of purpose (or, I would say here, a going beyond purpose) does not mean a lack of energy. It’s a hard thing to get my head around, but it suggests to me both a passage in Nietzsche about a boat without a helmsman (the “must” without the “should,” as a very dear friend and professor describes it) and what’s been presented to me recently as part of Zen practice – making your best effort without a grasping idea; aspiring without desire.

This is a lot to put on Coventry Patmore and on you, dear readers. Good thing that the poem invites us to sit down. (And there is something kind of wonderfully hypnotic about watching the waves, don’t you think?)

Are we meant to think that the act of sitting in such a place is enough to suspend our relationship with the world, at least temporarily? It’s always liberating to go on vacation and not check my email every seven seconds, to realize that I’m not as necessary to the world as it sometimes seems. (This is, of course, an easier feat to pull off after the semester’s over.) It’s liberating, but then again it can also be slightly depressing when you do get around to checking your email and it’s basically just 237 messages from the VICTORIA list, with some Friendster spam thrown in for good measure. Patmore rather ups the ante on us here, though perhaps the nod to the Analytic of the Sublime should have warned us that this was coming. We let a few letters go unanswered while we’re at the shore, and then all of the sudden we’ve slipped into a kind of deep time. Once again, there’s this return to the near-cliché—the eventual victory of truth—undermined by the last line. There’s a lot to be unpacked here, I think; at any rate, it’s not as simple as “the truth” being indifferent to particular individuals and time….the more I look at the last two lines, the more I’m inclined to read it as a specifically causal relationship—that is, the “truth” (whatever it is) will win because everyone will have stopped caring about the victory. (Initially I’d read it more as just a deep time kind of thing, that is, the truth endures beyond our human sense of time.) I wonder if this could also be read as an implicit encouragement to stop trying to push your truth to victory: just live, calm down, watch the waves. But I’m suspicious of that conclusion as well.

Over 1,100 words in (sorry, Mia!) and I haven’t yet talked about the prosody – this seems like a sin when it comes to Patmore who, as I’ve been finding out, is one of the leading lights of nineteenth-century versification. As I realized down in Philadelphia a few months ago, I don’t really have the chops for this kind of analysis. So, suffice it to say that no doubt the form of the poem is also significant and probably experimental. It might also be obvious to everyone else. Yes, this is a cop-out, but I’m sure your joy at the (possible) return of the Poem of the Week will outweigh my lack of scansion-tasticness.

*There’s a long history of this, actually. When Coleridge was putting out The Watchman, he did so every eight days to avoid the tax on weekly publications.

**Okay, so I saw that on a little sign in the San Francisco Zen Center gift shop last weekend.

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One of the passages I didn’t get to this semester was the bit where the local yokels rough up the railroad surveyors, and Caleb Garth and Fred Vincy come across them. EF paid particularly close attention to this scene, and the phrase I’ll be discussing.
“Old Timothy Cooper” utter’s the book’s most Radical words:

I’n seen lots o’ things turn up sin’ I war a young un–the war an’ the peace, and the canells, an’ the oald King George, an’ the Regen’, and the new King George, an’ the new un as has got aa new ne-ame–an’ it’s been all aloike to the poor mon. What’s the canells been t’him? They’n brought him neyther me-at nor be-acon, nor wage to lay by, if he didn’t save it wi’ clemmin’ his own inside. Times ha’ got wusser for him sin’ I war a young un. An’ so it’ll be wi’ the railroads. They’ll on’y leave the poor mon furder behindm. But them are fools as meddle, and so I told the chaps here. This is the big folks’s world, this is. But yo’re for the big folks, Muster Garth, yo are.

Then follows narratorial smackdown:

Timothy was a wiry old labourer, fo a type lingering in those times–who had his savings in a stocking-foot, lived in a lone cottage, and was not to be wrought on by any oratory, having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man. Caleb was in a difficulty known to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracle to reason with rustics who are in possession of an undeniable truth which they know through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant’s club on your neatly carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel. Caleb had no cant at command, even if he could have chosen to use it; and he had been accustomed to meet all such difficulties in no other way than by doing his “business” faithfully.

When I was teaching this semester, a lot of what I did was simply taking apart sentences that require some cognitive work. It took me a while just now to realize the bite of that first sentence. Timothy is totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, but he believes so little in the spirit of feudalism that it’s as if he weren’t totally unacquainted with them. It goes without saying that he’s unacquainted–he’s an illiterate rustic, remember? Even in my copiously annotated Broadview edition, there’s no footnote for the Rights of Man, which of course refers to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet supporting the French Revolution. The irony of this is that The Rights of Man was the bestseller of the Romantic era, marking the beginning of the long nineteenth century’s working-class mass reader and listenership. It might have been improbably that a rural subaltern would have read it, but I don’t think it’s unimaginable that he would have heard of it. In any case, when the narrator switches from Timmy to the second person and your experience with rustics, who are perhaps not as rural, it’s not unlikely that some autodidactic prole will club your bourgeois arguments with lessons learned from the radical press. The point is that those who would disagree with your bourgeois philosophies don’t read; what they know they know only through “a hard process of feeling” (the phrase I remember EF emphasizing).
I’ve been thinking about feeling and affect a lot lately, and I think it might be central to the diss project. I’ve been looking through Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings again, and she makes the argument that ugly feelings straddle the boundary between subjective and objective. The “fellow-feeling” of the last post and the “hard process of feeling” here point to two related poles: feeling as active and feeling as passive. One could go any number of ways with this, but since this is about teaching feeling, I wonder what active feeling and passive feeling mean in the classroom. Do the pair correspond to the canonical opposition of active and passive learning?

Hmmm. I’ve been sitting on this post for about a week now, and haven’t really been inspired to finish up this post. On the other hand, I’ve been looking through Brian Massumi and Rei Terada on affect, and they’ve got good stuff on active/passive emotions. I think this could be really useful for me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about having the central idea of my diss be the experience of nineteenth-century modernity in relation to the experience of China, experience being deeply inflected by active/passive feelings. Hopefully I’ll be able to make sense of that sentence one day.
One thing I’ll say in response to those questions I raised is that passive feelings, unlike passive learning, can be incredibly useful in pedagogy. So much of teaching is performing, and I don’t just mean performing in the sense of entertaining. Anne H. once said that the one thing she’s felt she’s been able to do best in the Lehman literature classroom is performing her love of literature. I think I might have actually succeeded in doing that, even if I’ve been going through some heavy-duty literature bed death (ahem) this semester. This semester, I semi-consciously allowed myself to go off on tangents. I’d never put myself in the same category of pedagogue as Wayne or Eve, but I’m reminded of a sentence from WK’s piece on mourning Eve in the latest PMLA:

Once when I told her that perhaps my classroom manner was slapdash, she kindly said, “At least you’re giving them a sense of the thrilling life.”

Perhaps it’s this very passive feeling–the feeling of being thrilled–which the phrase “slow reading” captures that the more clinical “close reading” doesn’t.

I might never have the chance to teach Middlemarch over the course of 8 weeks again, so I figure I ought to blog about it. Way back in January, after the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel that seems to have become a touchstone event for Anne and I, I decided to theme my modern literature “survey” on slow reading, and what text better exemplifies slow progress than Middlemarch? And, thanks to John Jay’s pre-emptive round of layoffs, it’s not very likely I’ll be teaching lit next year. I’m crossing my fingers for a writing fellowship.
So how did it go? It was, as always, a mixed bag, which means it must have been pretty good considering what a Slough of Despond this semester has been. My students didn’t revolt, and some of them actually *liked* it. Go figure. (These are all non-English majors, to the best of my knowledge.)
I went into the semester with a lot of trepidation, worrying about my ability to teach on something so focused, without my usual fallback of, if you don’t like the reading today, just wait to next week. When it actually got to the teaching, though, it didn’t feel slow at all. After all, each of the eight books is plenty long for an intro-level lit course for non-majors. And GE’s original readers would have waited 2 months, not 7 days, between books. I feel like there’s so much stuff that I should have covered but didn’t. Which brings me to this question I’ve been struggling with–should you try to teach in a structured way such that you cover all the important points, or do you just try to teach “in the moment,” taking as long as necessary to cover a single passage. I tended towards the latter this semester, partly because of the course’s theme, partly because I think it’s more conducive to my style.
I chose the title as an oh-so-clever homage to Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling and to reference what my marginal notes now describe as “The thesis of Middlemarch:

There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.

What struck me about this passage was how perfectly it answers the question of “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” “Literature,” presumably, more than any other kind of text, teaches this fellow-feeling; the literature habit, a fortiori, instills this deep-seated habit. It’s the literature as moral improvement argument we all know and hate. But what’s suggested here is that Eliotic sympathy works in opposition to “general doctrine”–by extension, literature serves as theory’s antogonist, functions as a check against it’s potential soul-eating force.
So here’s another way of thinking about the paranoid vs. reparative reading paradigm: paranoid reading acts as general doctrine (what Sedgwick following Tomkins calls “strong theory”), threatening to eat out one’s prose, while reparative reading doesn’t so much refuse paranoid reading but acts as a check on it.
This isn’t all that much of a post, but I’ve been sitting on it for a few days already, so I’ll save the second, less sunny part of it for later. I’m still trying to get back into the swing of things, and will try to use this blog to get back to a vaguely productive schedule.

…so you vill never understand Heidegger. Or Darwin!? The reason I became a fucking Victorianist was so I wouldn’t have to read that fucking asshat with the regrettable politics!

(Oh, unintentional conference humour…)