20th Century - Ashbery - Armantrout - My Philosophy of Life
BEING and TOTALITY were mid-20th Century master narratives, and we’ve come away from them shaken. What is art to aspire to after that? (The same things as it always has.)
If our time is “in the shadow of” 20th Century art and philosophy it’s because the art and philosophy of the 20th Century were totalizing, and our time is one of contraction, of a counter movement rather than a redirection or revision.
The error of our age is when we treat occurrences as instances. Not all walks to the mailbox are fraught with the weight of history. Usually it’s just junk mail.
If 20th Century master narratives are cages, 21st Century competing narratives are shadowboxing. Either can yield great as well as forgettable art.
There are some things we do not want to say so we remain silent. We are social.
Because in the artwork the instance must emerge, the experience of time is disrupted by attention.
In art, time is less sequentially monadic and more prismatically nomadic. Obvious examples: think of the structure of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Terrantino’s Pulp Fiction. You can even find this tension in Wordsworth, if you must. It’s always been this way. But it gains currency in the early 20th Century.
It will be a long time before we’re done dealing with the early 20th Century.
And we have the idea of time layered in Ashbery, where the poem often advances by shifting horizontally, geographically, one time to another—an accretion of middles of instances culminating in a panorama, the visual representation of the previous disparate occurrences. Armantrout, my other go-to example from our time achieves a similar effect by shifting time not across individuals and instances, but down the line of instances vertically, organized by one consciousness. Where Ashbery can appear as montage, clustered instances, Armantrout uses montaged, sequential absences.
The art object exists as an encounter its perceiver constructs alone. It is less a presence than a prompt. It is difficult, therefore, to agree to criteria for excellence, for whatever excellence one sees in art is really an encounter one is having with oneself.
How can one succeed, then, in convincing someone that a poem is worthy of praise? (When all parties are being honest and not cynical, we're like the priest, the rabbi, and the Imam on a lifeboat comparing mythologies.)
Arguments about art, necessary as they are (or appear to be), are necessarily beside the point.
When one is saying a poem fails, one is saying that it has failed to prompt that person into an encounter with her/him/self. The operation of that failure doesn’t necessarily reside with the poem in question just as it doesn’t necessarily reside with the perceiver. None of these are givens.
It’s always as much about form as it is about content. Form is about content.
Art need not be a representation to be an ecstatic presence.
Art is not social. In this way, art contends that every wedding you attend is a wedding of people you don’t know. Call it a philosophy of life . . .
My Philosophy of Life
Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?
That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.
It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they're made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one . . .