“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.

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“The Best Lack All Conviction, while the Worst / Are Full Of Passionate Intensity”

According to this article from August 2016, lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the prior 30 years. I have a feeling the final score for 2016 eclipsed the first seven months comfortably. For what it’s worth, here is the text of a poem I once learned as a Speech And Drama recitation:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Since reading this passage from Alasdair MacIntyre, I can’t help thinking of Nietzsche when considering this poem. And it turns out this paper explores the relationship between the poet and the philosopher in this poem in great depth (I have excepted the paper here, omitting about half):

In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on “The Second Coming” of Yeats’s historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.

The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats’s finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet’s thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: “It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others” ( Variorum 853) . However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the “packed logic,” the “difficult scornful lucidity,” of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell’s collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell’s “plebeian loquacity” infuriated Yeats who admire d “something aristocratic” in White head’s mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the time he was collecting, from his wife’s automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the “very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy” which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: “I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . .You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion” (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had “pieced his thoughts into philosophy” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Variorum 429).

Despite Yeats’s own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats’s thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding- what Graham Martin has called his “cryptic symbolism” (230). In fact the symbolism in “The Second Coming” is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements o his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein–literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical–which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.

In the course of this discussion of “The Second Coming” I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers [Yeats and Nietzsche] in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats’s language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.

From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.(4) Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats’s thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem’s specific philosophical and historical context:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, (“The Second Coming” lines 1-2)

and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly.

….

Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War (“bloody frivolity”) , the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19).

Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word “mere” and its surprising juxtaposition with “anarchy.” Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of “sheer anarchy,” suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase “a mere bagatelle.” In an early draft Yeats had written “vile anarchy,” which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify.

Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a “fabulous, formless darkness” which blotted out “every beautiful thing,” and “the darkness drops again” because the antithetical phases “are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash” (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell’s pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), “the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar.” Parnell was the symbol that “made apparent, or made possible .. . that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation…. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s; ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary” (Variorum 835).

Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats’s attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the “shadows of the indignant desert birds,” he wrote: “Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed” (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a “transvaluation of values.” Such references are legion in Nietzsche’s work. A “definite joy even in destruction ” is one of the prime conditions of a “Dionysian life-task” and a prerequisite of creativity: “Change of values. . . .Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator,” including self-destruction: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes]” (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats’s invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche’s pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: “Your enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts] And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars–and the short peace more than the long” (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical “enemy” and a personal, intellectual “war.” Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:

The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).

Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on “The Second Coming,” consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:

After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).

The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:

A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).

To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the “new civilisation was
about to be born from all that our age had rejected” (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because “each age unwinds the thread another age had wound” (A Vision 270).(5)

The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in “The Gyres,” with “tragic joy”:

When a civilisation ends … the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.” . . .Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian-not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter’s brush . . . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life (Explorations 433-34).

Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that “mechanical theory” had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that “lies outside knowledge, outside order”–the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats’s Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than “the child born in the cavern”; it is the embodiment of his belief that “the supernatural and the natural are knit together.” He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it” (Essays and Introductions 518) . This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which “lies outside knowledge, outside order,” are an integral part. Yeats’s critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications–humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism-was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before “the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world” was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.

Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as “hostile to life,” an attempt to deny “the doubt and terror of reality.” He thus invented a “fundamental counter-dogma,” an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: “I baptized it, not without some impertinence–for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?–with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian ” (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).(8) We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx–part man, part lion–was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as “natural and logical” as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the “imaginative richness of suggestion” thatYeats intended it to have.

“The Second Coming” is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the “intricate passion” that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the “masculinity” he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up “with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history” (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats’s rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from “our central date,” the first day of “our era” (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length] His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi’s sculptures: “They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.

I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of “The Second Coming” of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats’s, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation o the poem which has gained widespread currency:

In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet’s vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . .Yeats is not fond of Christianity . . . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).

While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem’s Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats’s antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, “all things are from antithesis” (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a “beneficent Dionysus” would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.

For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats’s cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life’s experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity”amor fati,” the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche’s attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats’s idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane–“tender” qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical–“hard, astringent” qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.

Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats’s work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his “philosophizing with a hammer”: “Caesar Borgia as Pope] Do you understand me?” (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche’s work, the clash throughout human history of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” values–the confrontation between a “higher” order of values that are “hard” and “noble,” that “say yea to life,” that “assured a future,” and “the opposing values of degeneration,” which he characterized as the morality of decadence: “Have you understood me] Dionysus versus Christ” (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).

Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those “hard,” “noble” qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:

Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of “greatness”: with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age–such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).

The lost world of Amity Cadet

The lost world of Amity Cadet

The works of the Vietnam-born French composer and pianist Amity Cadet have all but vanished from public consciousness. Of her innovative and eclectic body of work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, only one song – “Romances” has made it into the era of YouTube:

and Spotify:

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Cadet was born in Saigon on the 7th of May 1954 – symbolically the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu which would mark the end of the French presence in Indochina. Cadet’s father was a railway engineer working on the maintenance of the North-South Railway Line, her mother a teacher in the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat:

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Amity Cadet’s destiny was to move from lost world to lost world; it is not clear when exactly the Cadets left Vietnam, but they next were in Algeria, just in time for the escalation in the Algerian War of Independence that followed the Philippeville Massacre. They stayed in Algeria somewhat longer, until the mid-1960s. After all the Cadets were not pieds-noirs, and it seems that Mr Cadet secured employment with the post-Independence. In 1964 the Cadets relocated to Quebec City. At that point, Quebec remained a highly traditionalist, Catholic province. This suited Mrs Cadet, who at this point had become intensely devoted to the Most Immaculate Heart of Mary, but in the familiar pattern Quebec too was about the change, if not as violently as Vietnam or Algeria just as decisively.

Cadet’s teens spanned the years 1967 to 1974, but contemporaries did not recall her seeming terribly affected by the supposedly epoch-making events of the time. “She was a calm, placid girl. She liked slightly cheesy music – Neil Diamond, John Denver, that kind of thing.” She had begun learning the piano in Algeria, and kept up her lessons with Madame Press, a legendary Quebec City music teacher of fearsome repute. Yet, uniquely among Press’ students, Cadet had a calming effect on the irascible, ancient woman who had been been brought to Canada by her parents fleeing an Odessa pogrom in the year 1881. “Things that, from anyone else, would bring forth a hail of Yiddish curses and blows from tiny fists, would be greeted with a benevolent smile if Amity did them,” recalled a contemporary from the Quebec City Conservatory.

It was in 1975, aged 21, that Amity Cadet began to release albums on the legendary Montreal label Les Enfants d’Esprit. The pioneering dronerock act Nul and the “extreme singer songwriter” Benoit de Boniface (whose ninety five minute strums on open chords had so divided opinion during the first Festival De La Sagesse held in 1972) were the best-known acts on this label. The Les Enfants d’Esprit archives, including the cover art for all records released on the label, were destroyed in a fire in 1983.

All known copies of Amity Cadet’s debut, Piano de l’Enfer were destroyed in the flames. Perhaps, somewhere in a mouldering jumble sale or in an attic, there remains a copy of this album described by Canadian music critic Doug Bundle as “at the same time terrifying and arousing, like the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon” (to which Amity Cadet reportedly replied “What does that even mean?)

Whatever the merits of Bundle’s clotted prose, Amity Cadet’s debut was a milestone in the development of minimalist music. One contemporary said that the best way to imagine it is “Ligeti’s Musica Ricercerta II – played in hell by a pianist being slowly disembowelled by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon”

The years went on – Charles Manson and Richard Nixon became somewhat lesser cultural touchstones – and as the 1970s became dominated by punk (according to ageing music critics) and the Bay City Rollers (in reality), Amity Cadet found herself swimming against a musical tide of triviality, swimming against a cultural tide of cynical materialism, and swimming against a personal tide of repeated bad relationships. In 1979 a nightmare date with Donald Sutherland, followed by a nightmare date the following Saturday with Leonard Cohen, was immortalised in her minimalist piece “Threnody On Nightmare Dates with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen on Two Successive Saturdays” She persuaded Les Enfants D’Esprit to release this fifteen hour work in a twenty-LP set, no small vote of confidence in a work that consisted of Cadet repeatedly pressing all 88 piano keys at the same time using a length of wood.

The album “Romances” appeared in 1981. It is from this that the one surviving Amity Cadet track that appears on Spotify and Youtube comes from. Along with Tubular Bells, it is regarded as the high water mark of New Age music. “Romances”, the song, is the paradigmatic piano relaxation song, one whose structure however contains hidden repetitions of note sequences that encode the opening verses of the Books of Revelations.

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Later in the 1980s, Amity Cadet renounced music. The death of her mother in a train crash, for which her father, who had been unaware his wife was on the train, was later held criminally negligent for, deeply affected her. She used what royalties she had gained to buy up her records and destroy them, and to pulp entire runs of magazines that mentioned her career. She, like her mother before her, was to devote her life to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and music played by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon in hell did not quite fit this aspiration. Some tender impulse, however, led her to spare “Romances” from the memory hole, and to this day we can enjoy this epitome of piano relaxation.

Some personal highlights of #Inktober

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Inktober is a … well, here is the inevitable video:

So there you go – a month-long drawing challenge using ink and paper. I have been doing it, very much on the principle that If A Thing Is Worth Doing It is Worth Doing Badly.

There are “official” one word prompts:

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But you don’t have to follow them, and many don’t.

Anyway I won’t inflict my own work on this blog but some of the images I have come across by others. I have noticed a preponderance of manga-type illustrations among Inktober entrants, and as I remarked in a prior post this style of illustration is dominant in unexpected places. My own preferences are slightly different and I have tended to favour non-manga influenced pictures.

Anyway, here on no criteria other than personal taste and that I came across them, are some of my favourites from Inktober so far:

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Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K post

Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A  R  T  L▼R K post

Given how much I have been featuring Harry Clarke work (see also here and here and Harry Clarke Studio alumni here) I thought it might be nice to share this post from the Ark Lark blog on Clarke himself….

On the 17th of March 1889, Harry Clarke, an Irish stained glass artist and book illustrator, was born in Dublin, Ireland. The second son of Joshua Clarke and Brigid McGonigle, he was remarkable already as a child for his extraordinary individuality and intelligence. After attending several schools, including the Model Schools in Marlborough Street, he […]

via Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K

Why people still buy luxury watches – From “Timekeepers”, Simon Garfield 

“But there is another reason for the proliferation of the wristwatch beyond our innate desire to preen. Telling the time has, since sometime in the fifteenth century, been the way we display our mechanical and technological mastery. A watch may be something to show off to a colleague at work, but may also represent something grander, something astronomical: we have achieved this magnificent feat of engineering, and in so doing we have aligned our stars and gone some way to mastering the very nature of time itself. What began as a pendulum and evolved into an escapement has now become a tiny, light and elegant contraption to regulate a frantic world. The world we have made, accelerating almost beyond our control, was created in large part by the clock and the watch – the ability to take our destinies inside, away from the universal cues of the heavens. A watch of precision may still suggest that we are nominally in charge. But does a more expensive, rarer, thicker, thinner and more complicated watch suggest we are more in charge than others, or more in charge than before? The advertisers would have it that way.”
 (from “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield)

Review of “Blockbuster”, Tom Shone, SAU Blog, February 2005

 

Here is the original. Tom Shone’s big idea seemed more radical in 2005 than it does now –  indeed now it is pretty much mainstream. The triumph of what is still sometimes called pop culture in taking over the commanding heights of cultural discourse has been remarkable. And yet, it has been at the cost of how genuinely popular it is.

Twelve years later, as a father of three, the point about children making their own toys inspired by, for instance, Star Wars – rather than being in thrall to whatever Official Product emerges  – still stands!

 

blockbuster

Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

by Tom Shone

Pp352. Simon and Schuster, 2004

Hardback, £18.99

 

There’s what must be a deep-rooted human need to frame history in terms of easily digestible narratives. For instance, the benighted Dark Ages gave way to the glories of the Renaissance and the freethinking inquiry of the Age of Enlightenment. Subtleties, nuances, inconvenient facts and interpretations – all discarded as we form a smooth narrative of the light overcoming the darkness.

 

Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has become a bestseller by articulating what has become the dominant narrative, to use a post-modernist-sounding phrase, of recent cinematic history. In this account the venal capitalist illusion factory that is Hollywood, was, for a brief glorious sunlit spell in the early seventies, taken over by visionaries who made individual, witty, personal films. Then Jaws and Star Wars happened, and the golden era ended. Vapid blockbusters and movies aimed at adolescents of all ages were churned out by the studios.

 

The book Blockbuster could be called Shone Contra Biskind – indeed the subtitle refers not only to Dr Strangelove but also to Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the 50s. For Tom Shone the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars was not the end of cinema, but the beginning. He is bracingly irreverent of the pretensions of the early Seventies, quoting with evident approval the young Robert Zemeckis’ appraisal of Death in Venice as “one of the most boring movies ever made” and filling his work with sideswipes at poseurs suffering through retrospectives of post war Hungarian cinema to achieve some kind of “cool” kudos. For those for whom the words “arthouse” and “independent” threaten boredom and promise pretension rather than any guarantee of quality, this will be an enjoyable read.

 

Shone begins with the young Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and Cameron, growing up in the suburban sprawl that would be derided by any good Biskindite, beguiled not by films but by TV. Films had become pompous and ponderous, with studio executives believing that treacly, worthy spectacle was the only response to the growth of television. The future prophets of Blockbusterdom all made their own fun, with elaborate science experiments and inventions generally attracting the attention of the local fire department.

 

Shone’s own childhood also features in these early stages. He recalls the shattering impact of Star Wars, and pace the sundry bores who thought the merchandising of the film was the work of wicked manipulative capitalists, shows how it was simply a response to a massive public demand. Shone and his friends made their own Star Wars memorabilia while waiting for slow-footed toy companies to actually make the official toys. So often children are portrayed as passive consumers, tabulae rasae pliable to the suggestions of advertisers and therefore requiring protection from this noxious breed. Shone’s experience would suggest that children are more in control of the market than the market is in control of them.

 

Writing in a witty, conversational style, Shone is nevertheless a shrewd critic whose insights never fail to provoke some thought, some reconsideration of one’s own lazy pseudo-high brow prejudices. He writes on something I’ve often noticed – how there are no positive portrayals of capitalism in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that the studios are all owned by capitalist conglomerates. Here he is on why “quality” critics and academics are usually clueless in writing about genuinely popular movies:

 

It is a congenital defect of critics at the higher end of the brow when faced with appraising popular movies, whose very smoothly oiled efficiency can seem suspect, hence the perennial appearance of Vertigo on Sight and Sound’s list of best ever films: Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.

It turns out that Shone is as nostalgic as Biskind, but his nostalgia is for the early days of the blockbuster boom. Today Variety can blithely refer to a “failed blockbuster”, a phrase that would have been oxymoronic thirty years before. Once, a blockbuster was defined by its box office success. Now a blockbuster is a certain type of spectacle-driven, “event” movie.

 

An interesting feature of Easy Riders, Raging Bull was how little of it was about the films themselves, and how much about deals, about producers, about the business and politics of moviemaking rather than anything about them. This is a continuing strain in highbrow (or rather would-be highbrow) writing about Hollywood. Witness Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood, an initially very enjoyable anthology of writing about Tinseltown that gradually wears thin. There are only so many appalled anecdotes recounted by rather precious writers making mock of the philistinism of Hollywood folk that one can take. And any book ostensibly about Hollywood that contains one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain and pages and pages on Ishtar and the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra is certainly more interested in the attendant tittle-tattle than the films produced by the philistine studio executives et al.

 

Shone, unlike Biskind, actually discusses the movies he adores as movies. Or rather he does at the start of his tome. After E.T. there is a noticeable change in tone. We read more and more about the producers and their deals, and less about the end product of all this effort. Shone is as appalled as any Biskindite at a world in which widely hated films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix Reloaded, disliked even by fanatics of the “franchise” they are part of, take enormous sums at the box office and ascend the ranks of all-time highest grossing movies.

 

For a place always portrayed as in thrall to profit at all costs, money doesn’t matter in Hollywood, or rather it matters hugely but not in the way one expects. Rob Long, one of the writing team of Cheers who later documented his absurd adventures in Tinseltown in Conversations With My Agent, wrote of the “Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics”, the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.

 

Following from that point, one can discern a more general point about artistic creation of any kind from this book. George Lucas griped that the original Star Wars featured only 50% of what he wanted to achieve, and was proud that his vastly increased clout allowed him The Phantom Menace to meet 90% this target.

 

Faced with the amazingly insipid films that were the recent instalments in the Star Wars “franchise”, who could claim that advances in technology or in the power of directors have improved filmmaking? Computers have made special effects so ubiquitous that there’s nothing special about them anymore. The Matrix sequels also support the contention that, contrary to the widespread prejudice against “the suits” cramping the creative vision of directors, directors need to have something or someone to rein in their extravagances.

 

Spielberg, too, later admitted that Jaws would have been far inferior with the technology of fifteen years later – the frankly ludicrous-looking shark was kept until the right dramatic moment. Shone contrasts this with the first sight of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – a resounding anti-climax as the wonderful technology allows Spielberg to show the creatures in their glory, munching passively in a field. Again and again, bigger does not mean better. Jaws – sprightly, irreverent, even gritty at times – seems closer to Taxi Driver than Jurassic Park, more successful at the box office but much less a part of any collective cultural consciousness (think of the theme from Jaws, and now try to think of the one from Jurassic Park).

 

Jurassic Park’s release coincided with the round of GATT talks that considered European quotas limiting the release of American movies. Shone is strong on the irony of all this, as Hollywood itself was increasingly a trans-national identity. “American movies” were never less American than in the 1990s, as German and Dutch directors, Canadian locations, and money from all over the globe combined to produce the potent blockbusters.

 

The subtitle of the book should perhaps have been something like “The Rise and Fall of the Blockbuster”. Anthony Powell once said of Kingsley Amis that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension”. Anti-pretension for its own sake becomes limiting and confining, just as eccentricity for its own sake is just irritating, and non-conformism for its own sake the worst form of conformism.

 

Tom Shone’s argument is anti-pretension through and through, yet he cannot bring himself to the ultimate pretentious anti-pretension stance and learn to love the Hollywood of Godzilla and The Matrix Reloaded. Blockbuster is an enjoyable, witty guide to the Hollywood mainstream of the last thirty years, and how it has been the most prominent victim of its own extraordinary success