herman melville, “moby-dick”

Herman Melville
Moby-Dick
(Penguin Classics, 1987; originally 1851)


It’s been a long time since I sat down and read Moby-Dick: I vaguely recall doing that sometime after arriving in New York, and certainly I’ve picked through the book for important passages. But it’s been too long; with the end of the year coming on, it seemed a good time to go back too see what’s changed there. This Penguin Classic seems to be the version on the shelf at home; in college I had a cheap Signet that we probably got rid of when K. & I combined our books. The inside front cover bears a dedication “to ‘Poop Deck’ Bowen / a mighty sailing man / from / Corona Dan / your matey / Merry Christmas / 1987”: those two don’t seem to have written anything else in the book, though one always wonders how many copies of Moby-Dick have been read at all. The introduction and notes of this edition, done by Harold Beaver in 1972, are extensive but a bit too jocular & Joycean (back cover copy of this book compares Melville to Nabokov, ), yet seem to neglect whatever it is that I really want to find out. Obviously, it’s my own fault for not having a Northwestern-Newberry edition, which came out a year or so after this book, and which Penguin seems to have picked up for later editions of this book; this edition clocks in at just over a thousand pages, a good chunk of it notes and explanatory material, and one feels a little bad for poor forgotten Harold Beaver.

This book can be counted on for the kick of strangeness, which comes quickly: this threat buried in “Extracts” among the other quotes about whales from literary history still has a kick:

“If you make the least damn bit of noise,” replied Samuel, “I will send you to hell.”
Life of Samuel Comstock (the mutineer), by his brother, William Comstock. Another Version of the whale-ship Globe narrative.)

There’s something to still being able to be surprised by a book. It’s still there, even in the second paragraph of the first chapter, a description of Manhattan “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs – commerce surrounds it with her surf”. The preoccupation with economics comes back on a personal level: the narrator explains that he goes to sea as a sailor rather than as a passenger because of the difference between paying and being paid:

And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, – what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition! (“Loomings,” p. 97)

The notes to this edition don’t point out that the “two orchard thieves” are Adam and Eve, which is vexing. But this is a strange idea, of course: to link the fall in the Garden with the necessity of capitalism. Melville does this later, in “The Paradise of Bachelors” and “Bartleby,” I think – but it’s strange to see the morality of capitalism turning up so quickly in the book; it’s something that recurs, of course.

The way this book is structured is also strange: the first 25 chapters are the narrative of Ishmael, who is soon joined by Queequeg in what almost seems a buddy comedy (or, by the notes of this edition, a gay romance) where they learn the limits of tolerance. Then they board the ship, and Queequeg takes his ranks among the mates and harpooners; Ishmael seems to disappear entirely, dropped by the narrative voice as a useful device. Perhaps the changeover happens in Chapter XXIII, “The Lee Shore,” in which the character of Bulkington, previously set up to be important in the narrative, is disposed of; Ishmael also seems to disappear here. The next chapter sets out with the words “As Queequeg and I are now fairly embarked in this business of whaling”; but this “I” doesn’t really seem to be Ishmael any more; it seems to be the author, who can pull up references from other books – as the narrator does in chapter XXIV – rather than the entirely undistinguished-seeming Ishmael, unlikely to provide such exegeses. But the split is never made clear: Melville seems uninterested in such niceties. Certainly by the last paragraph in the same chapter (source of the title of the C. L. R. James book) it is not Ishmael speaking:

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God! (p. 212)

Soon after this, the narrator will be reporting conversations between other people that Ishmael can’t possibly have heard; while occasionally the narrator makes reference to being a sailor on the ship, it’s hard to say anything substantive about what Ishmael does on the Pequod aside from his link with Queequeg. Ishmael is an unlikely character, seemingly too well read: it’s hard to imagine why someone who was ostensibly once a common sailor would be as well-versed in Paracelsus and Thomas Browne as the narrator is. Melville, of course, fits this description; but Ishmael as authorial surrogate is even more confusing, as Melville seems to be going out of the way to efface himself from his narrative.

I’ve spent more time with Pierre and “Bartleby,” the works Melville wrote after Moby-Dick since my last reading of this book; what strikes me about Moby-Dick is how comparatively baroque the language is. It’s almost frightening, looking back, to realize how quickly these three works were composed; but with Moby-Dick, Melville seems to be enthusiastically throwing everything at the book, following every digression and having fun doing it, something that he doesn’t do as much in the following works. The germs of both Pierre and “Bartleby” might be found here; the aforementioned self-effacement leads to “Bartleby”; Ahab’s ambition foretells Pierre’s self-destruction. Clare Spark has argued that Melville intended Ahab to be seen as a hero rather than the anti-hero we usually see him as: read with this in mind, it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, the reader is meant to identify with among the characters if not Ahab.

december 11–december 21

Books

Films

  • Alien Resurrection, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann
  • A Serious Man, dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  • The Fighter, dir. David O. Russell
  • L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, dir. Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea

Exhibits

  • “Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space,” The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles
  • “The Artist’s Museum,” The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles

joseph mcelroy, “night soul and other stories”

Joseph McElroy
Night Soul and Other Stories
(Dalkey Archive, 2011)


Having attended most of Joseph McElroy’s readings in New York since the release of Actress in the House, it feels a bit strange to be reading this volume of short stories, his first: I’ve heard a good number of them aloud before seeing them on the page, one twice. Some of them seem, in memory, to have been presented differently: what’s here called “Mister X” was read, I think, as part of Cannonball, a short novel; “Character” was an excerpt from Voir Dire, another novel. I don’t know what’s happened to those books; perhaps they’ll be published some time soon. The long-promised water book is evidently finished; an English version of Exponential could be assembled; and looking through the list at his site, it seems like another volume as large as this one could be assembled of uncompiled short stories. There’s a great deal of Joseph McElroy’s work that doesn’t exist in book form in English: this is frustrating, of course, but it’s also reassuring: there’s more of his work to come.

The oldest of the stories in Night Soul go back to 1981: “The Unknown Kid,” published in TriQuarterly then was originally part of Woman and Men, while “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” which feels almost of a piece with Lookout Cartridge, appeared in the Partisan Review in 1984. But seven of the twelve pieces here were written after 2000: most of this is fairly recent work. And though the pieces are separated across time, atemporal groupings can be recognized in the repeated themes: sets of fathers and sons; characters from the city in the rural environment of New Hampshire in the past; disparate characters in New York in the present or near-present. The eponymous protagonist of “Mister X” asks questions of his acupuncturist:

Could Qi flood you? he asked. It was not really like that – a river, she said. His eyes closed, he dismantled the adjacent daybed opening the damn thing stretching the material. (Was Qi a two-way street? And why “daybed”? Why Leonardo? (pp. 73–74)

The reader of this book recognizes this confluence of rivers and Leonardo: hinted at is his plan to move a river for strategic purposes, mentioned in “No Man’s Land”:

Da Vinci those call him who think that was his name, said uncle, who confirmed that Leonardo had set out to move a river. Nomads would not do that. They would cross it. (p. 14)

McElroy’s precision with names is, of course, a subset of his precision with words. In “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne”:

. . . I wanted to (as Baudelaire says) “accost” this boomerang man. (p. 38)

Later, in “Night Soul,” a man listens to the vowel sounds (“ah,” “eh,” “uh”) his sleeping son makes (sounds also mentioned at the end of “Particle of Difference”) and tries to attach meaning to them:

So to the man it meant, what you found; while the next, the eh , as in “again,” stops what you found and holds it to what it is: accosts it, accosts what? the moon moving? a knife of reflected light cut by the ceiling beam? or a memory you can’t have all by yourself? (p. 283)

Baudelaire isn’t mentioned here, but it can be surmised that he stands behind the accosting. Each of these stories works separately; but placed together, there’s a resonance, and one wonders if all of McElroy’s work might be put together into a giant roman fleuve, “”a memory you can’t have all by yourself,” a record of consciousness greater even than Women and Men.

There are outliers, of course. “The Campaign Trail” and “The Last Disarmament But One” are more overtly fabulist than anything else in the book, science fiction of a sort, though not quite in the same realist mode as Plus. “The Campaign Trail” imagines the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada (seemingly the Burgess Shale, where some of the oldest fossils in North America can be found). It’s clearly a political allegory, but the meanings are hazy: what does it mean that they kill a wolverine-like beast eating a fawn? “The Last Disarmament But One” is similarly opaque: a neighboring country disappears completely overnight, leaving a crater. Connections are made between physics and children’s drawings; one senses America of the present in there somewhere, as well as, perhaps, the trace of Julian Gracq’s The Opposing Shore, but McElroy has made of this amalgam science fiction of a strange sort:

Not recently heard from, the once distinguished particle geologist with a crater in him turned to the harvesting of stained-glass minerals. Some How scientists became Whats overnight and claimed that the interesting work was now interdisciplinary. My own attachment to the great event, the loss of that neighbor nation, I one day saw confusingly and not clearly but chokingly, was like when I lost the mother of my child and heard her voice for months as on an interdisciplinary telephone or as only a function of my own deafness, and was glad I had spoken to her so often before she died. (p. 210)

This voice in this paragraph suggests Don DeLillo, who took a few tricks from early McElroy; but what McElroy is doing here seems a ways away from DeLillo’s recent work. Science fiction here is useful shorthand: writing in that mode allows one to use the phrase “the once distinguished particle geologist with a crater in him” with impunity. This is explained in context, as are the Hows and Whats; but three reads in I still haven’t understood with McElroy’s doing here.

Here and elsewhere in the book, McElroy shows that he’s still deeply interested in trying to understand the worldview of the scientist, perhaps in a lonely attempt to rebut C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. (See also a piece from a few years ago, where he observes a neurosurgeon at work.) Scientists and engineers, usually men, wander through McElroy’s fiction, wondering about how to understand and approach big problems: again and again, he’s interested in how they think, and how they engage with ideas. The technician, for McElroy, might be an image of the writer.

jules renard, “nature stories”

Jules Renard
Nature Stories
(translated by Douglas Parmée)
(New York Review Books, 2010)


This is an edition of Jules Renard’s Histoires naturelles translated by the late Douglas Parmée and with illustrations by Pierre Bonnard. Parmée died in 2008; his introduction to the book gives the impression of having sat on the shelf for a while. NYRB presumably took advantage of the good feeling engendered by Tin House’s republication of Renard’s Journal in 2008 as an excuse for publishing this volume; another version of this book seems to be out from Oneworld Classics in the translation of Richard Stokes with illustrations by Lucinda Rogers. I haven’t seen that version, though I’d like to; Parmée’s introduction indicates that he selectively reworked Renard’s text to work better in English, and the NYRB edition is much longer than the Oneworld version. Two earlier editions of this book appeared in English in 1966: George Brazilier published a translation by Elizabeth Roget in 1966, and the Horizon Press published one by Richard Howard; both featured illustrations by Toulouse-Lautrec and seem to have largely vanished. What inspires such bursts of publication is unclear to me. But even among this year’s crop of translations, the Parmée and Stokes translations aren’t, for what it’s worth, the most interesting edition of this book; that would be a limited Italian edition with illustrations by Luigi Serafini, the existence of which has the unfortunate side effect of making this particular edition seem rather cheaper than it should.

This book consists of 84 short pieces, most describing a single animal, most around a page long. Some are as short as a few words; others almost form short stories of a couple pages. Occasionally Renard strays from the animal world to describe a forest, rain, autumn leaves, a sunset; a few pieces describe human action: looking at the wild, waiting with a gun for an animal to appear. Many of the animals are domestic; most are encountered in the wild, and one section describes animals seen in a zoo. Though the book is ostensibly about nature, he and his family recur throughout as characters: in a longer piece, about the death of a family dog, there’s a sharp description of their reaction that might be from another sort of book entirely:

Out of a sense of decency, to avoid admitting that we’re so upset by the death of a little dog, we’re thinking of all the human beings whom we’ve already lost, those we might be going to lose, all those dark, icy, mysterious things impossible to understand. (p. 27)

For most of the book, however, Renard isn’t so explicit. Nature Stories is almost contemporaneous with Jean-Henri Fabre’s Book of Insects, and though Renard isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a scientist he often ends somewhere similar. In both, the natural subjects are anthropomorphized to a degree, though they can’t usually be usefully roped into allegory: they are, fundamentally, strange, and while their ways can be observed and understood, there’s always a distance between the observed and the observer, as pointed out by his preface to his description of “a miserable sunrise”:

The sun doesn’t rise twice in the same place and in the same way. There are as many suns as there are impressions of them, which would cancel each other out. Anyway, it’s very nice to see one a year and you’re quite likely to miss it the first time. All it needs is for the sky to be closed down. The following day, are we likely to be less keen? It’s possible that on the third day, we’ve given up trying to see such a capricious sight or that the sun rises only in our imagination and the reader is still not deprived of a stylish page of fiction. (p. 76)

Like Montaigne or Joseph Joubert, Renard’s focus is as often as not on himself as observer. But in Renard’s work we might also see the genesis of Francis Ponge’s attempts to come to terms with objects. Renard’s work doesn’t generally qualify as prose poetry, though sometimes the shorter pieces suggest this: here, for example, is the entirety of “The Spider”:

A little hairy black hand, tensely poised on yet more hair. (p. 72)

Or “The Cockroach”:

Black and clogged up like a key-hole. (p. 70)

though the concision here suggests nothing so much as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913). It’s occasionally that Renard focuses as exclusively on his subjects as in these cases. The individual pieces aren’t dated in this edition; so when we come across “The Green Lizard” in the middle of the book, which reads:

Beware of the paint, (p. 56)

it’s hard to tell how we should read the trailing comma. Is this unfinished? Is this an editorial mistake? (My edition is an uncorrected proof.) Or is it possible that Renard intended this for publication? As printed, this can be read as poetry; it’s much harder to read this as prose. Knowing Ponge, we can read this Renard as a precursor; but it’s not clear to me that this is what Renard would have intended.

Renard’s naturalism is distinctly a nineteenth-century version: he is very much a hunter, albeit one who seems to recognize the cruelty inherent in most of humanity’s interactions with the natural world. He empathizes, but to a point; there is, for Renard, a natural order in the world, and he is a part of that order. Here he is shooting partridges:

This couple of young birds has already started living together on their own. I come on them one evening at the edge of a ploughed field. They were so tightly joined, one wing on top of the other, so to speak, that the shot which killed one dislodged the other one.
     The female didn’t feel anything but the male just had time to see his bride dead and to feel himself dying beside her.
     The two of them have left, in the same place, a little love, a little blood, a few feathers.
     So, with one shot, you’ve managed a double: go and tell your family all about it. (p. 128)

Though it isn’t necessarily clear from this quote, the birds have almost certainly been shot by the narrator himself: he sees what he has done and anthropomorphizes in the name of empathy. But it’s the last line here that might count: the narrator seems to be upbraiding himself for his hubris, for he’s only really managed to kill two birds at once by accident. The conflict is what makes this book interesting; it’s not the achievement that Renard’s Journal is, and this edition leaves something to be desired, but it’s a pleasant and entertaining book.

florine stettheimer, “crystal flowers: poems and a libretto”

Florine Stettheimer
Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto
(edited by Irene Gammel & Suzanne Zelazo)
(BookThug, 2010)


This is a bit unexpected: an edition of the poetry of Florine Stettheimer, best known as a painter, from BookThug, a Canadian press new to me. Over the summer I read her sister Ettie’s novel and became aware of Florine’s poetry, a first published after her death by Ettie in 1949 in a compilation called Crystal Flowers. This turns out to have been impossible to get ahold of because it was published in an edition of 250. This edition, new in November, presents those poems, three additional ones, and the libretto for a ballet; it also wraps them in a fantastic editorial apparatus, with a lengthy introduction, extensive textual notes, a glossary of abbreviations and allusions, and a chronology of her life. Perhaps Florine Stettheimer still isn’t tremendously appealing to the masses: this new version exists, says a note on the text, in an edition of 500, a number that’s painfully small (and perhaps why this isn’t being published by an academic press). But even though not many people will see it, this is still a tremendously useful book, and it deserves some attention.

Florine might be the best-documented of the Stettheimer sisters: it turns out that there are a couple of biographies of her, most recently that of Barbara J. Bloemink in 1995, coinciding with a retrospective at the Whitney, but also one from 1963 by Parker Tyler, whose Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew still sits mostly unread on my shelves. Irene Gammel, one of the editors of this book, wrote a biography of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven which I’m always meaning to pick up. This discussion of biography aside, this book is particularly useful because it’s an edition of Florine’s poetry: and while it is well supplemented by biographical elements, this is, first and foremost, a volume of poetry which can finally be read as such.

Gammel and Zelazo’s edition of Crystal Flowers follows Ettie Stettheimer’s original arrangement of the poem, adding three uncollected pieces at the beginning and adding a short ballet libretto at the end. The poems are grouped into thematic sections: “Nursery Rhymes,” “Nature/Flora/Fauna,” “Things,” “Comestibles,” “Americana,” “Moods,” “People,” “Notes to Friends,” and finally “As Tho’ from a Diary,” a sequence of autobiographical poems. Sequence is important here: the initial poems seem to be self-consciously doggerel in the style of Edward Lear. The first untitled poem:

My neighbor
The Cat
Sat
On a mat
Her mouth
Like a trap
With eyes
That snap
She smiles
At a Rat
And now
She is fat
That’s
That!

This isn’t the most auspicious beginning; and one wonders if Florine Stettheimer would have wanted this published at all, though it seems like the sort of thing that might have been sent to friends: perhaps Ettie’s edition of 250 was as intended as a keepsake rather than a literary production. Turning to the notes, however, we learn that “My neighbor” was Ettie’s emendation for Florine’s original “My daughter-in-law”, which creates a poem of entirely different feeling. There’s no obvious biographical antecedent to take away the strangeness: Carrie, Florine, and Ettie lived with their mother until her death and never married – although their often forgotten older siblings, Frank and Stella, did leave the maternal fold and marry. Gammel and Zelazo’s introduction suggests that comparison might be made to Emily Dickinson; this might be stretching it, but after the run of nursery rhymes, the poetry opens up and becomes more interesting. There’s the suggestion of the influence of H.D.’s imagism in her nature poems, like this tiny one:

Today
The breaking waves
Look like
Ruffled-edge petunia leaves

The poems are unfortunately not dated; it’s hard to tell when they would have been written, and though the Stettheimers would probably have been in the same social circles as William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, it’s hard to say what Florine would have been reading. The easy sense of rhyme remains a constant through most of her poetry: these aren’t the most rigorous poems, though they’re not as unthinking as the first section might suggest. With “Things” and “Comestibles” the poems become decidedly strange, as the narrator inhabits other consciousnesses and uses riddle-like forms. Here, she becomes a canvas:

I was pure white
You made a painted show-thing of me
You called me the real-thing
Your creation
No setting was too good for me
Silver – even gold
I needed gorgeous surroundings
You then sold me to another man

This isn’t quite as tight as it might be – the third line doesn’t quite work – but there’s still a kick to the last line, forcing the reader to go back. Stettheimer was fond of the second person, which blooms in the “Comestibles” section, where she imagines herself to be various types of food:

You stirred me
You made me giddy
Then you poured oil on my stirred self
I’m mayonnaise

Here one does think of Dickinson: this is undeniably a good poem, and it’s hard to think of anything quite like its terse application of a cheerfully insane metaphor to personal relations. Again the last line kicks, almost anticlimactically in its simple declaration; but it doesn’t solve a riddle so much as start asking questions. This approach isn’t always the one she takes: some of these poems are simply about food, seemingly without a personal component. She starts a poem from the perspective of a pig (“You called me hog”) though her perspective shifts and she seems to end empathizing with a piece of ham: “You changed me completely / Even my name / You called me Ham”. What matters here isn’t that the ham was once part of a pig; it’s the ham’s status as an object, something that can be held in thrall by naming.

The final sections of poems, “People” and “Notes to Friends,” might have the most immediate interest: the Stettheimers inhabited an artistic sphere, and many of their friends turn up here: Carl Van Vechten, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp. The editors’ notes are useful here, pointing out who people referred to by first names and initials are likely to be. The notes don’t take up the temptation to overstretch themselves, however. “A relatively long poem that begins “We Flirted” is left opaque: it tells of a transatlantic flirtation carried out over time, until the narrator says:

“Let’s celebrate
This faithful
long flirtation
give a fête
invite many
They shall give us
Crystal things
Diamonds
Venetian glass
Perhaps
we could accept
Sapphires
Perhaps
we could build
a treasure house
all of glass.”
His glasses
strangely
dulled
his eyes
They became
an opaque barrier
on which
Our flirtation
Shattered
In a thousand
Splinters.

There’s a temptation to read this as being about Marcel Duchamp, who arranged for a retrospective of Florine Stettheimer’s work at the Museum of Modern Art soon after her death. Duchamp, though he led a transatlantic existence, doesn’t seem to have worn glasses while Florine was still alive: but like her, he was very taken with the idea of glass: “a treasure house / all of glass” could describe either of their work.

december 1–december 10

Books

Films

  • แสงศตวรรษ (Syndromes and a Century), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Aliens, dir. James Cameron
  • The Cat and the Canary, dir. Paul Leni
  • The Last Command, dir. Josef von Sternberg
  • The Last Command, dir. Josef von Sternberg
  • Tron, dir. Steven Lisberger
  • Panique au village (A Town Called Panic), dir. Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar
  • Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) , dir. Fritz Lang
  • Alien 3, dir. David Fincher

Exhibits

  • “Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway,” Park Avenue Armory

dore ashton, “the new york school”

Dore Ashton
The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning
(The Viking Press, 1973, originally 1972.)


My art history is the capricious one of the autodidact: I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a proper history of the abstract expressionists in New York, though I’ve read the obligatory work of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and I’m reasonably familiar with New York before and after them, and the Surrealist work taking place alongside them. The abstract expressionists seem so big and cartoonish that actually reading a history of them almost seems beside the point: everyone knows the stories. My first roommate in New York was a painter taught by a (considerably elderly) painter who’d been taught by Hans Hofmann; we went to the Cedar Tavern and I heard about how the original location must have been so much better. It’s hard to muster up desire to go see the big show now up at MoMA: we’ve seen even revisionism many times over now.

Dore Ashton’s The New York School is, for me at least, a useful corrective. Ashton’s work is a cultural history: not so much a study of art but a study of the conditions in which art happens. This, it turns out, is interesting: we tend to forget how things have not always been the way they are now. Early in this book (in a section on the history of the WPA) the state of the arts in the United States in the early twentieth century is pointed out:

The Hoover administration did allocate some funds to states that initiated their own programs, although President Hoover himself, like most of his fellow citizens, gave no weight to the arts. Henry Billings, an artist on the mural project, regards the Roosevelt regime as the first to be even faintly aware of the arts as a necessary part of civilization, and points out that when Hoover answered an inquiry by the French government for an exhibition to include American art, he said that as far as he knew there were no decorative arts in the United States at this time. (pp. 44–45)

This book is as much a history of philistinism as it is one of art: and that’s really what makes it interesting to me. (One might pair it with Martin Duberman’s history of Black Mountain College, which it complements nicely; though with a handful of exceptions – Cage, Rauschenberg, Richard Lippold – there’s not a lot of overlap in the cast of characters.) History is written by the winners; after a century of that, it’s not hard to immediately think of a couple of major artists (Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, say) active in the 1920s; MoMA would have just opened in its first incarnation. One forgets, however, that the position of the arts in this country has always been embattled, and Ashton does a fantastic job of tracing this out, closing with the description of a loft party in 1961, names carefully removed:

Many of the old restless spirits were present, but then, so were some 800 others, including collectors, dealers, museum officials, and assorted functional members of a greatly enlarged art world. They were there by written invitation and checked carefully at the door by armed Pinkerton men. Once upon a time, a famous poet remarked, Pinkerton men had been used to chase disreputable elements such as artists. Now the artists do the chasing. It is not easy to understand what had happened. How had this extravaganza come to be, and why? Partly the answers were circumstantial. Ten years before there had been only about thirty respectable art galleries in New York. By 1961 there were more than 300 managing between them to stage close on 4,000 exhibitions a year. This unprecedented growth had blurred the outlines of an art community and caused confusion in the ranks. ((p. 229))

The political undertones here aren’t accidental: Ashton’s politics are made abundantly clear in the book. This is a book written in the early 1970s, when it seemed like things could conceivably change for the better if the lessons of the past were understood. Ashton understands, however, that the forces capable of acting in a small group of unknowns are very different from those of a fully commercialized community. The abstract expressionist explosion happened in part because the core group was small and relatively isolated from outside pressures: this is classic evolutionary theory. If no one’s going to buy your paintings, you can paint whatever you want: it’s not a recipe for success, but it does make it possible.

Ashton’s book does seem dated in certain respects: while she seems to have relied on Lee Krasner for material, she doesn’t really pop up as a subject; women in general are almost entirely missing. Maybe it’s the time she’s covering – Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, and Joan Mitchell wouldn’t really come into prominence until later in the 1950s and 1960s – but that absence seems jarring. Edwin Denby, Rudy Burkhardt, and Frank O’Hara lurk in the margins of the book, and one senses that Ashton would have liked to bring them further forward – the first photograph of the book is a full-page Burkhardt photo of Denby – but this is mostly a book about straight white men. But I speak with the hindsight of thirty-seven years; on the whole, Ashton is more right than not, and a lot that we’ve forgotten is in this book. The description of how Joe McCarthy went from real estate to being a reactionary, for example, seems eerily prescient:

Old reactionary tactics were revived, and a zealous, ambitious politicians called Joseph McCarthy saw the value of renewing the red scare that had been used before to stave off social reform. It is significant that McCarthy got his start in the field of real estate. Those who had hoped to institute a new era with good public housing and liberalized city-planning were the natural enemies of speculators. McCarthy consciously climbed to political prominence by attacking government housing projects. His first target, in fact, was the Rego Park Housing Project, containing 1,424 units for veterans. He visited the project in 1947 and then called a press conference to denounce it as “a breeding ground for Communism” (at that time he represented the pre-fabricating industry). It was brought to his attention that public housing was not a good issue for him in view of the veterans and the housing shortage, and so he moved into greener pastures, such as the universities, Hollywood, and the cultured classes in general. (pp. 174–5)

hans hofmann

“A work of art can never be the imitation of life but only, and on the contrary, the generation of life.

A dancer must not only master his body but he must be a generation of life in bringing the space to life wherein he dances, and this as the answer to his entire personality.

A painter who attempts to imitate physical life (a naturalist) can never be a creator of pictorial life, because only the inherent qualities of the means can create physical life. That makes the esthetic difference between creation and imitation.

Creation asks for the capacity of empathy.

I do not study nature but I’m completely taken in by its secrets and mysteries, and this includes the secrets and mysteries of the creative means through which I attempt to realize one through the other.

Picasso makes this quite clear when he says: ‘First I eat the fish, then I paint him.’ This is the transformation from culinary empathy to pictorial empathy.”

(Hans Hofmann to Dore Ashton, quoted in Ashton’s The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, pp. 83–84.)

noted

  • Joseph McElroy & Frederic Tuten will read at 8 pm on December 9 at Happy Ending (302 Broome St.) as part of the Animal Farm reading series. I hope the MCing will not be as cringe-inducingly awful as the last Animal Farm event I ended up at.
  • Competing reading: at the Swiss Institute (495 Broadway) at 6 pm the same night, Ugly Duckling Presse is putting on an event for their edition of Robert Walser’s Answer to an Inquiry.
  • And there’s a tribute to Jane Bowles at KGB at 7 on December 5 with a lot of interesting people.