Jottings Logo - John Fraser




I: Substantiality


Let me start with a couple of quotations:

How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality.

Wallace Stevens

“Ah yes, things have their life, that is what I always say, things have a life.”

Samuel Beckett

To which I may as well add something from one of Woody Allen’s parodies:

Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak.

You will glimpse my prejudices.


I am concerned in these lectures with a Gestalt, an intellectual configuration, a quasi-orthodoxy, part philosophical, part aesthetic.

You can see it conveniently in that fat and intimidating Penguin volume Modernism (1974), where it has the blessing of the editors.

Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane obviously like

the passion in Modernism to see the universe as contingent, poverty-stricken, denuded until it has been reimagined, its local virilities apprehended through the planes and conjunctions available to the fictionalizing mind.

They like how modernist experimentalism “does not simply suggest the presence of sophistication, difficulty and novelty in art; it also suggests bleakness, darkness, alienation, disintegration.”

For in doing so (I am extrapolating here), modernism is being true to the essential nature of things, given the logical—and inescapable—reversibility of the relationship described above—the collapsing of the enriching imaginings back into the primal poverty.


Modern art, in that view of things, is there to make us uncomfortable, to bring things into question, to challenge our ontological complacency, our unwillingness (as in those eve-of-war lines of W. H. Auden ) to

see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. —

and who play their little games to keep out the cold.

And if modern art, doesn’t do its duty—if works seduce us with a seeming richness of lived experience, or formal strengths and graces, or vivid what-happens-next imaginings—, well, there have been critics and theorists enough to jolt us back to our senses; which is to say, to the obligation to live with Wallace Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”


From this point of view, the ideal modern artist is someone like Jorge-Luis Borges’ imagined man-of-letters Pierre Menard, who devotes himself to composing a Don Quixote that will be word for word the same as Cervantes’ novel of that name but a different work and much more interesting.

He has found a game to keep out the void, the game is absurd, nothing concrete results from it, and if we fail to see its greatness, this simply—as his fictional eulogist assures us—reflects on “the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading.”


Personally I don’t much care for this take on the world. It seems to me to display what Martin Heidegger in his book on Nietzsche calls “those features that usually describe what one means by the familiar term nihilism: something that disparages and destroys, a decline and downfall.”

It also seems to me simply untrue of a lot of good art, including a lot of modern art, especially during those crucial decades between about 1890 and 1930.

So in these lectures I shall muddle away among my anxieties and try to sketch a somewhat different configuration.

Let me start with the reference in the Penguin volume to the modernist “belief in perception as plural, life as multiple, reality as insubstantial.”

It is that “insubstantial” that bothers me.


In a rather cozy book on nihilism, the kind that makes you feel, “Well, if that’s what it’s all about, maybe I’m a nihilist,” the theologian Michael Novak informs us that

I recognize that I put structure into my world. Such recognition is a necessary condition of the experience of nothingness. There is no “real” world out there, given, intact, full of significance. Consciousness is constituted by random, virtually infinite barrages of experience; these experiences are indistinguishably “inner” and “outer.” The mad are aware of that buzzing confusion. The sane have put structure into it. Structure is put into experience by culture and the self, and may also be pulled out again.

It sounds a bit like keeping a bank account.

“And what can we do for you today, Professor?”
“Oh, I think I’ll just withdraw Truth and Beauty and put back Social Relevance and Nouvelle Cuisine.”

But are we really so free to choose how we are situated in the world?


Samuel Johnson certainly didn’t think so.

“After we came out of the church,” James Boswell famously recalls,

we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus!”

Nor did Louis-Ferdinand Céline think so.

The doctor-narrator of his great modern novel Death on the Installment Plan (1936) recalls how a colleague who used to wax lyrical about “exquisite deaths”

died of the heart eventually under conditions that weren’t nice at all: a paroxysm of angina pectoris lasting twenty minutes. For a hundred and twenty seconds he certainly stuck to his classical resolutions, the great tradition, the Stoic ideal... but for the other eighteen minutes he screamed like a pig having its throat slit.

There seems, on the face of it, a good deal to be said for Yvor Winters’ observation that

The realm which we perceive with our unaided senses, the realm which our ancestors took to be real, may be an illusion; but in that illusion we pass our daily lives, including our moral lives; the illusion is quite obviously governed by principles which it is dangerous, often fatal, to violate...

And besides, where else would you go for that steak?.


Moreover, as we grow up, we don’t give the world around us meanings that we have the option of withholding. Reality (Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination to the contrary) isn’t something that an individual comes to like a shipwrecked sailor landing on a desert island—something utterly alien and other, non-human, voiceless.

The China Seas, Conrad observes in his marvellous short story “Typhoon,” were “full of everyday, eloquent facts, such as islands, sand-banks, reefs, swift and changeable currents—tangled facts that nevertheless speak to a seaman in clear and definite language.”

Nor will a desert island (meaning uninhabited, not sandy) be alien and voiceless to someone acquainted with the flora and fauna of that region and knowing what to look for even before his raft beaches on the sand. (“No sharks in the lagoon.... an animal trail into the jungle... fresh water nearby, probably....”) The island speaks to him. It is charged with meaning.

And the process by which a particular tall shape becomes for him, as he approaches it, not only a tree but a cabbage palm—a cabbage palm with an edible heart—is simply a continuation of the processes that began in infancy.

As Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reminds us—or the more methodical enquiries of the child psychologist Jean Piaget—the world “grows" for the child in an endless series of interactions with physical objects, other people, and language, a process imbued with valuings.


There is a lovely paradigm of this in Richard Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929).

Ten-year-old Emily Bas-Thornton and other assorted children are at play on the beach near their family home when odd things happen. The water in the bay ebbs away a little, then rushes back in tiny waves.

Mouthfuls of turf were torn away; and on the far side of the bay a small piece of cliff tumbled into the water: sand and twigs showered down, dew fell from the trees like diamonds.... That was all.

But afterwards—ah, afterwards!

“Well, anyhow I said there was going to be an earthquake and there was one,” said Margaret.
That was what Emily had been waiting for! So it really had been an Earthquake (she had not liked to ask, it seemed so ignorant: but now Margaret had said in so many words that it was one).
If ever she went back to England, she could now say to people, “I have been in an Earthquake.”
With that certainty her soused excitement began to revive. For there was nothing, no adventure from the hands of God or Man, to equal it. Realize that if she had suddenly found she could fly it would not have seemed more miraculous to her. Heaven had played its last, most terrible card; and small Emily had survived, where even grown men (such as Korah, Dathan, and Abiran) had succumbed.
Life seemed suddenly a little empty: for never again could there happen to her anything so dangerous, so sublime.


And a little later we have the counterpointing irony of Emily’s non-hurricane.

The prodigious storm that kills the Bas-Thorntons’ negro servant Sam and drives the Bas-Thorntons themselves into the tenuous shelter of their cellar (after which it proceeds to rip the house apart) cannot come into existence for Emily as a hurricane because no-one puts a name to it.

If Emily had known this was a Hurricane, she would doubtless have been far more impressed, for the word was full of romantic terrors. But it never entered her head: and a thunderstorm, however, severe, is after all a commonplace affair. The mere fact that it had done incalculable damage, while the earthquake had done none at all, gave it no right whatever to rival the latter in the hierarchy of cataclysms: an Earthquake is a thing apart.


Common sense (Johnsonian? Célinesque? Wintersian?) also murmurs its pedestrian cautions about the draining away of meaning and value.

There are indeed states of mind and body in which this happens—happens dreadfully.

For the speaker of Wallace Stevens’ all-too-real-feeling “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,”

The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know.
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

In Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”, Harold Krebs, back in Oklahoma with his parents after being demobilized, “did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again.”

William S Burroughs during his stay in Tangiers in the 1950’s

had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal [morphine] addiction.... I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. ...If a friend came to visit ... I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision—a grey screen always blanker and fainter—and not caring when he walked out of it.

And what about the spiritual collapse of E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Moore after the disastrous excursion to the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India that leaves her with the sullen consciousness that “Everything exists, nothing has value”?

Or poor valiant alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crack-up sense in the Thirties of “a vast irresponsibility toward every obligation, a deflation of all my values”?


Such states of mind are very real and very terrible.

We have all had glimpses of them, if only during the grey-outs of sleeplessness or the derealization that comes with the aftermath of flu—feelings about the triviality of our work and the unchangeableness of the “real” world, the unchangeableness that torments Conrad’s little bomb-making “Professor” in The Secret Agent and that Conrad himself was obviously well acquainted with.

We can all respond empathetically to Marlowe’s account in Heart of Darkness of his fever-ridden disintegration after the death of Kurtz:

“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without clamour, without glory; without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”

We know what Fitzgerald was talking about when he said that “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”


And the body can torment you in more insidious ways.

It can send your morale up and down with the barometric pressure. It can saddle you with systemic allergies and chronic metabolic insufficiencies. It can make you feel like the young man in Kafka’s story “Conversation with the Supplicant”:

“There has never been a time in which I have been convinced from within myself that I am alive. You see, I have only such a fugitive awareness of things around me that I always feel they were once real and are now fleeting away.”


However, as Nietzsche knew all too well (he speaks of “the deep depression, the leaden exhaustion, the black melancholy of the physiologically inhibited”), we needn’t rush to metaphysicalize such phenomena and give them a cognitive status. So I shall keep going for a bit along the present route.


Environments too can obviously have their say in the thinning out of the self.

They certainly did so with respect to what Hannah Arendt calls that “disease of the nineteenth century, its terrible boredom.”

—the boredom that runs like a leit-motif from the writings of François-René Chateaubriand and Étienne Pivert de Senancour at the start of the century to Anton Chekhov’s at the end,

—the boredom voiced by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (“so confoundedly bored, gentlemen,... so horribly bored”),

—the boredom of Alexandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (“men’s thoughts, their plots, the words they speak/ all of an emptiness so killing”).

In backwoods, how d’you pass this season?
Walking? The country that you roam
is a compulsive bore by reason
of its unvarnished monochrome...

Alternatives? A game perhaps?

and then, indoors the livelong day,
alone, and sunk in calculation,
with a blunt cue for the duration
from early morning on he will
at two-ball billiards prove his skill

One of Borges’ imagined men-of-letters speaks of “The essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.”

But even tedium is boring when there is no-one to play against.


Boredom is deprivation.

When beautiful consumptive twenty-six-year-old Edele Lyhne in Jens Jacobsen’s Niehls Lyhne (1880) is sent into the country for her health, she fills “letter after letter with entreaties that her exile might be brought to an end...”:

It was not exactly the amusements [of Copenhagen] she missed so sorely, but she was accustomed to hear the sound of her life gradually drowned by the noisy atmosphere of the large town, and here in the country such a silence reigned in thought, in word, in looks—in everything, in fact, that she was continually hearing herself with the inevitable distinctness with which we hear the ticking of a clock in a sleepless night. And to know that life was going on over there, going on just as before! It was like being dead and, in the silence of the night, hearing strains from a ball-room die away in the air above her grave.

During his temporary stay in the country, with no work to do, Tolstoy’s up-and-coming lawyer Ivan Ilych, in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), “experienced ennui for the first time in his life, and not only ennui but intolerable depression, and he decided that it was impossible to go on living like that.”

As Pascal had put it, two centuries earlier in his Pensées,

Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort.
Then he faces his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness.
And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.


And “communication” itself in such situations, when it occurs, can become a torment.

For Edele Lyhne, “there was no one here with whom she could talk, for they never took up that shade of meaning in her words which alone gives life to speech.” But when the “sensitive” yearn for people to talk to, what they want to talk about is always elsewhere.

It is the doings of urban society. It is the “daring” philosophizing going on in the pages of “advanced” periodicals. It is the tragic grand passions and consuming ennui of romantic heroes

—heroes like Onegin,

—heroes like the Byron who had demanded in Don Juan, “Must I restrain me through the fear of strife/From holding up the nothingness of life?”

— heroes like Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time (1839) , who said things like, “[A]s our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But unlike them we have no hope, not even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that’s felt in any struggle be it with men or destiny.”

—heroes like Senancour’s Obermann in the 1804 novel of that name, terminally bored among mountains. (“In the midst of what I’ve desired, I lack everything; I have obtained nothing, I possess nothing; boredom consumes my stay in a long silence.”)


And the jolly retired generals and hard-working landowners and brisk maiden aunts in Chekhov with whom the sensitive are obliged to rub shoulders socially are not just people who don’t know the right kind of society or haven’t read certain books.

With their blindness to the tragic nature of existence, they are the enemy. So that to talk seriously with them about crops or the doings and misdoings of peasants would be to give up part of your own true self.

And the tragic exhilarations and heroic ennuis of literature exacerbate your own feeling of being different and further derealize the everyday conversation of the unliterary, members of the opposite sex among them.

With disastrous results at times, if, like Onegin, or poor Emma Bovary, or Thomas Hardy’s Eustacia Vye, you make emotional demands on the few individuals with whom you can talk which they are incapable of satisfying.

The elsewhere kills the here; sometimes literally.


But at least in the country the encountered others, the figures at the parties you were forced to attend, the figures on the road when you were out walking, were still presences requiring some response.

In the city, on the other hand, you could endure a tantalus-like emotional poverty in the midst of plenitude—the torment of proximity without any relationship at all.

As the philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out in the early 1900’s, “Before buses, railroads, and streetcars became fully established,... people were never put in a position of having to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without exchanging a word.” And Walter Benjamin remarked some years later that “The man who loses his capacity for experiencing feels as though he is dropped from the calendar. The big-city dweller knows this feeling on Sundays.”

The young readers of E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) obviously knew all too well what she was talking about when she said, “There are some days when you seem to have got to the end of all the things that could ever possibly happen to you, and you feel you will spend all the rest of your life doing dull things just the same way.”

As do the characters in Walter Sickert’s London painting “Ennui” from around 1914.

A moustached middle-aged man, heavy-set, brown-suited (almost all the picture is shades of brown) leans back in his chair, a cigar held to his mouth, a half-empty glass of beer on the living-room table before him, gazing into vacancy.

Behind him a woman, half turned away from us, leans her elbows on a sideboard, staring up at a picture of which we see only the edge.

They are immoveable; they have run down. The silence between them is palpable.


Things can wear out, lose their charges of significance, lose their voices, leaving you with what F. R. Leavis calls “the automatisms, acquiescences, blurs, and blunted indifferences of everyday living.”

Books wear out: “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres,” as Stéphane Mallarmé says in “Brise Marine” (“Sea Breeze”), that poem of romantic yearning for escape and renewal. (“The flesh is sad, alas, and I’ve read all the books.”)

And as you age, your recollections also fade and it becomes harder and harder to summon things back with the small or not so small differences, the subtle shifts in viewpoint, the possibility of having behaved otherwise, that help to keep them alive.

Even Emily’s earthquake will fade for her. As Charles Baudelaire says in “Le Voyage,”

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!
[To the child, in love with maps and pictures,
The universe is vast as his appetite.
Ah how immense the world is by lamplight!
How small the world is in recollection.

Barbara Gibbs]

Roads are irrevocably not taken, options are closed out, the promise and glamour fade from what had earlier seemed a whole forest of forking paths.


But of course I’m being a bit simple-minded, aren’t I?

Such phenomena obviously don't explain, let alone explain away, self-disgust, despair, remorse, the “awareness/ Of things ill done and done to others’ harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue” (thus T. S. Eliot).

They don't explain away Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mind-tormenting “ Cliffs of fall,/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed,” or Fulke Greville’s Renaissance sense of being “Down in the depth of mine iniquity,/ That ugly center of infernal spirits,” or Nietzsche’s agonies, or the conclusion to the nightmare symbolist vision of Baudelaire’s “Les Sept Vieillards” [“The Seven Old Men”] in the 1850’s:

Vainement ma raison voulait prendre la barre;
La tempête en jouant déroutait ses efforts,
Et mon âme dansait, dansait, vieille gabarre
Sans mâts, sur une mer monstrueuse et sans bords!
[In vain my reason tried to take the helm;
The tempest rollicking led it astray,
And my soul danced, danced like an old lighter
Without masts, on a monstrous, shoreless sea.

Barbara Gibbs]

It isn’t boredom that at the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie Teorema (1968) drives the head of the well-to-do Italian household, all of whose members have been seduced by the dishy and enigmatic young Terence Stamp, to “break,” in a classic collapse of R.D. Laing’s “false-self system,” and strip himself naked in a railroad terminus, and walk through the crowd with the sensation of staggering up a slope of powdered lava under a merciless sun.

Nor is suicide normally the result of ennui. As works like Hedda Gabler, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser remind us, it is more likely to be the result of a torment of irreconcilable imperatives.

Or of too total a loss of a hoped-for future, and the prospect of being henceforth condemned to be a self that you don’t recognize—or recognize all too well—and cannot bear to live with.


However, some deeper alienations may still be psychological rather than philosophical.

In Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) the young French intellectual Martin Decoud is marooned (with his consent) on the for him completely alien and voiceless islet of Grand Isabel off the coast of the fictive Latin-American country Costaguana. And after ten days of solitude, he loses “all belief in the reality of his actions past and to come” and shoots himself.

The brilliant Decoud, Conrad tells us,

was not fit to grapple with himself single-handed.... After three days of waiting for the sight of some human face, [he] caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. It had merged into the world of cloud and water, of natural forces and forms of nature.... Decoud lost all belief in the reality of his action past and to come.... He beheld the universe as a succession of incomprehensible images....The great gulf burst into a glitter all around the boat; and in this glory of merciless solitude the silence appeared again before him, stretched taut like a dark, thin string.

There is nothing metaphysical about a sensory-deprivation tank in a psychology lab.


And if Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus hadn’t had their novels about emotional emptiness, Nausea (1938) and The Stranger (1942), narrated in the first person, with the customary French air of certitude, those narratives mightn’t have come across as so (for a time) prestigiously philosophical.

Sartre’s Roquentin, after all, is cushioned against the claims of necessity by what appears to be a reasonably comfortable unearned income (from what investments?). And when you don’t need to do anything in particular, such as completing the scholarly biography that he has been writing, it isn’t all that difficult to feel that there are no compelling reasons for doing anything at all.

As for Camus’ Meursault, the narrative is simply a fake.

After lunch I went up to my room read a while, and went to sleep. When I woke it was half past four. I found my swimming-suit, wrapped it with a comb in a towel, and went down-stairs and walked up the street to the Concha. The tide was about half-way out.

Thus Jake Barnes near the all-passion-spent end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Camus simply tapped into that mode of discourse for the requisite “existential” numbness, and then increased Meursault’s sensitivity and intelligence whenever he needed to inject his own interpretation of what was going on.

Gustav von Aschenbach’s disintegration in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) is not presented by Aschenbach himself, and Mann does not attempt to turn a particular tragic case into a universal statement about what life really is.


Moreover, there are reminders enough in art , including modern art, that the philosophizings of a Roquentin or the programmatic indifferentism of a Meursault are not the only options with respect to alienation.


In one of the sketches in Kafka’s first book, Meditation (1913), we read how:

I force myself out of my chair, stride round the table, exercise my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles round them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me, amiably tolerate B. in my room, swallow all that is said at C.’s, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.

The whole volume, with its celebration of childhood energies, its reachings-out into the life of the streets, its fighting back against intimidations, is in effect a Nietzschean extension of such will-strengthening exercises. It demonstrates that you don’t have to veer between the yearnings voiced in the sketch “The Wish to Be a Red Indian” (“instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind”) and a numb passivity.

To be sure, the states of higher energy achieved in this marvellous little book are precarious. As the narrator of “Resolutions” acknowledges, “[O]ne single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.”

But it is a slipping back and not an ascent into truth, and the struggle against it goes on with increasing success in the stories that Kafka published in his lifetime and wished to be remembered by, and gives his career the moral grandeur that it has.


By the same token the authority of Samuel Beckett’s career derives in part from our knowledge of those appalling, those almost literally paralyzing depressions of his in the Thirties. Like the insensate turbulences from which the adolescent Ferdinand partly escapes in Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, Beckett’s psychosomatic despair, boils and all, was a given, not a chosen, and his writing prevented it from destroying him.

And when Borges embarked on the intricate explorations and exorcisms of Ficciones, he had just come close to death from septicemia and passed through a fever-ridden nightmare of demoralization like that of Marlowe in Heart of Darkness.


An engagement with an out-there reality need not entail fantasy, either, in order to be emotionally satisfying. It need not entail Emily’s inflation of her earthquake, or the card-house constructions of Northrop Frye’s beloved “romance.”

Knowledge, precise functional knowledge, can bring its blessed and lasting enrichments, as we see in the joyous precision of observing and naming in D.H. Lawrence’s essay “Flowery Tuscany,” or in the progression from the “literary” surface perception of the Mississippi in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, via the growing understanding of its musculature in his Life on the Mississippi, to the rich totality of Huckleberry Finn (1884), that novel from which, in Hemingway’s perception in the Thirties, all modern American fiction had come.

As books like Ivan S. Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (another of Hemingway’s favourites) and the British proto-Lawrence Richard Jefferies’ The Amateur Poacher (1880) remind us—and as anyone who has prowled the city streets with a camera knows—the stalker looks more attentively and sees more of interest than the stroller; sees the individuating there-ness of relationships.

Escaping from what Heidegger calls “the pallid lack of mood which dominates the ‘gray everyday’ through and through” can involve not a turning away from reality but a moving deeper into it.


Arthur Schopenhauer, from whom so many configurations and attitudes come, had spoken scornfully of how ordinary people merely want to “use” nature, rather than “contemplate” it.

But the peasant or gardener, existing in a both/and relationship with growing things, was more likely to experience them in their totality than the would-be “beautiful souls” who went to them as a ground on which to have soul-state experiences—persons like Helena Verden in D.H. Lawrence’s second novel The Trespasser (1912), for example, who

wanted to see just as she pleased, without any of humanity’s previous vision for spectacles. So she knew hardly any flower’s name, nor perceived any of the relationships, nor cared a jot about an adaptation or a malfunction.... She clothed everything in fancy.

With their ongoing curiosity about country things and country people, writers like Jefferies, Turgenev, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Lawrence, Robert Frost, and Jean Giono weren’t bored in the country.


Even when the moving deeper in is purely mental and private, there may still be an enriching social dimension to it, an implicitly collaborative activity. Emily Bas-Thornton’s fiction-making is not simply shadowy and weightless.

As she sits with the rest of her family in the hurricane-beleagured cellar and wishes that “the wretched thunderstorm would hurry up and get over,” she soothes herself, and puts out of her mind the dreadful fate of the family cat Tabby, by thinking about “her” earthquake.

But the thinking-about is not merely a matter of envisioning, as if looking at a continuous motion-picture shot.

First, she held an actual performance of the earthquake, went over it direct, as if it was again happening. Then she put it into Oratio Recta, told it as a story, beginning with that magic phrase, “Once I was in an Earthquake.” But before long the dramatic element reappeared—this time, the awed comments of her imaginary English audience. When that was done, she put it into the Historical—a Voice, declaring that a girl called Emily was once in an Earthquake. And so on, right through the whole thing a third time.


Furthermore, the idea of a necessary conjunction between significance in modern art and an adversarial bleakness looks increasingly odd when you allow your mind’s eye and ear to linger over the works of figures like Gabriel Fauré, Pierre Bonnard, Marcel Proust, Jean Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, Eugène Atget, Paul Valéry, Jean Giono, Paul Klee, Luis Buñuel, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean Sibelius, Auguste Rodin, W.B.Yeats, Gustav Mahler, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Virginia Woolf, Scott Joplin, The Beatles, Jean Vigo, John Ford, Max Ernst, Claude Debussy, Gabriel-Garcia Márquez, Joan Miró, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rousseau.

Nor are the stories that Kafka himself published and wished to be remembered for, stories so inventive, so robustly communicative, so seriously witty, the works of someone whose imaginative world resembles (the Penguin Modernism again) the vision of “an animal looking out from its burrow on to a world which in its flatness and greyness no longer belongs to him.”


And if Mallarmé would not have been Mallarmé without the ontological crisis of his mid-twenties, in which he experienced a terrifying sense of the void of an entirely godless, purposeless, alien universe, he would also not have been Mallarmé without those Tuesday evenings of intellectual discourse and tobacco smoke that he hosted so gracefully and so influentially in his apartment in the Rue de Rome.

For that matter, the dominant characteristic of Beckett’s work is talk—and not just talk in the Shavian fashion, but communication or would-be communication at deeper levels.

The responding mind of someone else is always implicit in what is said by the protagonists of Beckett’s plays. And what is sought is usually sympathy.


If alienation and impotence have indeed been strong presences in modern art, there has also been a powerful resistance to them.

There has been an energetic fighting back against the kind of dead-ending displayed so painfully in that epitome of fin-de-siècle Schopenhauerian pessimism, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896).

And we don’t, we really don’t, have to feel that the poignant melodiousness of a Fauré or those glowing light-and-colour-drenched paintings of Bonnard (“the strongest of us all,” according to Henri Matisse in 1926) are somehow not really modern.


Everything, well almost everything, is there in Jude when it comes to fin-de-siècle pessimism.

Think of poor working-class Jude Fawley’s hopeless fixation on the romanticized heights of Oxford.

And the aridity of the academic Oxford that we glimpse in the novel.

And poor Sue Brideshead’s doomed yearning to transcend herself in sexual relationships.

And her corrosive, superstitious sense of guilt, even worse than that of the unfortunate Tess in Tess of the Durbervilles.

And the constant destructive pressure on the two of them of “respectable” public opinion.

And the accuracy of Jude’s diagnosis, “We are horribly sensitive; that’s really what’s the matter with us, Sue.”

And the absence of any communal structures in which self-forgetful enjoyment is possible for the two of them.

And Jude’s unmourned final vanishing down the memory hole.

And Hardy’s own evident inability in the novel to see any way in which Jude could have enabled himself and Sue to achieve any kind of permanent happiness together.

And the drabness of his prose.


Two years after Jude appeared, the Irish realist George Moore (on whom Joyce improved in Dubliners) imagined Flaubert saying to himself apropos of L’Education Sentimentale (1865),

The entire phantasmagoria of life shall pass before the reader, scene after scene, all equally trivial, all equally meaningless—the eternal spectacle of human misery and the eternal spectacle of ennui watching over it; that shall be my book.

Moore was obviously well aware of how for Schopenhauer,

However much great and small worries fill up human life, and keep it in constant agitation and restlessness, they are unable to mask life’s inadequacy to satisfy the spirit; they cannot conceal the emptiness and superficiality of existence, or exclude boredom which is always ready to fill up every pause granted by care.

It is against that sort of background that a good deal of modern art deserves to be viewed.


And what we see, I suggest, is a recoil from, and a variety of disruptions of, the dichotomy that Scott Fitzgerald referred to when he complained in a letter, a few months after the publication of The Great Gatsby about “this eternal looking beyond appearances for the ‘real,’ on the part of people who have never even been conscious of appearances.”

Which is where we get further into philosophy.


In terms of that dichotomy, the really real stands in an antithetical relationship to the “ordinary” world, as it does in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, with their polarity of ineffable moments of rose-garden insight and blank-faced commuters sitting in a stalled Tube train and knowing only “the growing terror of nothing to think about.”

Once you have glimpsed things outside the cave in “the true sunlight” (Schopenhauer’s phrase), or concluded that that is what you should be bending all your energies towards, coping with things in their time-bound physicality indeed becomes problematic—like having to make small-talk at a dreary party out on the steppes while being all the time conscious of those brilliant balls in St. Petersburg and the Byronic intensities of romantic novels.

And philosophical nihilism is coming at you fast.

As Heidegger reports, “nihilism, i.e., Platonism, posits the supersensuous as true being, on the basis of which all remaining beings are demoted to the level of proper nonbeing, demoted, denigrated, and declared nugatory.”


How devastating the problem could be we see in the Journals of that poor, sad, brave Swiss academic Henri-Frederic Amiel, born like Baudelaire and Flaubert in 1821, and like them a major analyst of the effects of Romanticism.

As he notes in the dreadful 1850’s, “I am distrustful of myself and of happiness because I know myself. The ideal poisons for me all imperfect possession.”

For not only is he cursed with “the ironical temper which refuses to take either self or reality seriously, because it is for ever comparing both with the dimly seen infinite of its dreams,” As he also acknowledges,

I hold so lightly to all phenomena that they end by passing over me like gleams over a landscape, and are gone without leaving any impression. Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists.

With the result that, as he writes at the age of forty-one,

Nothing seems alive inside me any more, or outside me. It is the void, oblivion, nothingness. I am present like a mummy at the march of time, and joy withdraws from me like the light of the valleys after the sunset.
I am nothing, and I am conscious of this nothingness.

This wasn’t romantic posturing or play-acting, and the posthumous selection from the journals that appeared in English in 1884 was a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God demonstration of what to avoid.

If you could.


It was a very different vision that spoke when William James, who had himself lived through a hideous depression as a young man, said in 1909,

Dive back into the flux itself,... Bergson tells us, if you wish to know reality, that flux which Platonism, in its strange belief that only the immutable is excellent, has always spurned; turn your face toward sensation, that flesh-bound thing which rationalism has always loaded with abuse....

It is a very different voice that we hear when W. B. Yeats three years earlier said, famously,

Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematic form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.

It was a very different voice that had sounded in Nietzsche passim, in the Seventies and Eighties, in his challenges to Schopenhauer.


The affirmation of the body during the early modern period was a double one.

In part, there was the insistence on the body as a source of misery and limits that made its ineluctable claims and reminders, as it did for J.-K. Huysmans’ rich young nobleman Des Esseintes in A Rebours, seeking to construct his own aestheticised reality out in his country house.

It forced you to attend to its aches and pains, like Des Esseintes’ memorable toothache.

It imposed itself on you like the emblematic 1890’s body of the Elephant Man, so that in the end Des Esseintes is forced back to Paris—boring vulgar plutocratic Paris—by his ruined digestion.

It warned you that all your plans and hopes could at any time be shattered, like those of Ivan Ilych, and that your dying, your inescapable dying, might, like Ilych’s, be not at all amusing.

Zola, especially, was the great poet of the adversarial body.

But there were the body’s energies, too. Its benign energies.


The body as celebrated by Nietzsche and Lawrence, or by Tolstoy in the great mowing scene in Anna Karenina, is not simply a Zolaesque source of trouble—of boils, carbuncles, tuberculosis, indigestion, frightful headaches—as it was for so many people in the supremely toxic nineteenth century.

Nor is it just an object to be plopped down in over-stuffed armchairs, fed enormous meals, pampered with the contents of whisky decanters and cigar humidors.

As both art and the growing popularity of outdoor activities testified, the body, the doings of the healthy body engaged in significant action—fighting, swimming, riding, tramping through the countryside, playing games, making love, dancing—could be where you felt most fully alive and conscious, most fully “yourself.”

Looking back on his Mediterranean youth and his adored swimming, Paul Valéry (born in 1871) recalled how

Certainly nothing so formed me, permeated me, instructed—or constructed—me as those hours stolen from study, hours seemingly idle but really given over to the unsconscious worship of three or four undeniable gods: the Sea, the Sky, the Sun.


Examples of the new physical energy in art are legion.

I will simply remind you here of Anna Brangwyn, big with child, dancing with slow grave exultation in the privacy of her bedroom in Lawrence’s The Rainbow;

— and of the Homeric alternations between adrenalin-charged effort and earned relaxation in those classic early-twentieth-century thrillers Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps(1915)

—and the rhythms of the Ballet Russe that burst upon London in 1911;

— and the jazz that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band brought to London in 1917.

The American philosopher-classicist Martha Nussbaum has suggested that Nietzsche would have liked the singing of Billie Holiday. He would surely also—that celebrator of the dance—have approved of the irresistible early-twentieth-century ragtime rhythms of Scott Joplin.


Nor, in the new Gestalt, did the impermanence of the body’s experiencings diminish their value.

During the high noon of Romanticism, A. W. Schegel had complained that

In the Christian view... [t]he contemplation of the infinite has destroyed the finite; life has become a shadow world and a nighttime, and only in the hereafter does the eternal day of essential existence dawn.

But for Father Gerard Manley Hopkins seventy years later, it was a good in itself (which is why it could be emblematic of greater goods) that

a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!

And for Paul Valéry in his great post-Christian meditation “Le Cimitière Marin”(“The Cemetery by the Sea,” 1920) an organic impermanence was simply one of the conditions of existence.


Death might and did await you, inescapably.

Les cris aigus des filles chatouillées,
Les yeux, les dents, les paupières mouillées,
Le sein charmant qui joue avec le feu,
Le sang qui brille aux lèvres que se rendent,
Les derniers dons, les doigts qui les défendent,
Tout va sous terre et rentre dans le jeu!
[Of flattered girls the eager, sharpened cries,
The moistened eyelids and the teeth and eyes,
The charming breasts that parley with the flame,
The shining blood at lips that pleasure rifts,
The fingers that defend the final gifts,
All go beneath the earth, rejoin the game.

Barbara Gibbs]

But those beings and doings of the youthful body did not become any the less signficant because “La larve fille où se formaient des pleurs” [“The source of tears the tracking worm devours”]

The glorious Mediterranean sky, and the pine-scented heat, and the sparkling blue of the sea, and the impulsion to go on thinking and creating, are not undercut by the awareness of “un peuple vague aux racines des arbres” [“A shadowy people of the rooted mold”].

On the contrary, you can virtually hear the hum of Valéry’s batteries being recharged in the course of his great and intricate poetic-philosophic meditation


What we have in this kind of “being-in-the-world” (to use Heidegger’s term) is that quality of attention, or what I myself think of as “grasp,” that is so vital in life and that has been so strong a presence and preoccupation in modern art.

It is the quality of being fully present in the experiencing, so that everything is there in its thusness and individuality.

It was what that great literary critic, educator, and philosopher of language F.R.Leavis was so deeply concerned with— more intelligently and knowledgeably, where literature was concerned, than Heidegger.


If a good deal has been said, in and around modernism, about fadings and blurrings of consciousness, the feebleness and fallibility of memory, the draining away of the past, there have also been intense efforts towards the recovery of the past—or pasts—, whether in novels like A la recherche du temps perdu, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or To the Lighthouse, or in the poetry of recollection, Hardy’s for example (celebrated by both Leavis and Winters).

Even Beckett is as much the laureate of recollecting as of forgetting.

And implicit in this recovering, and in the literary criticism of writers like Pound, and Leavis, and Winters, is the conviction that it is indeed possible to get something right; right in the sense that a single photograph of someone will leap out of a batch of contact prints and impose itself by virtue of the feeling of life in it.

“Yes,” you say, whether you know the individual or not, “that’s it, that feels right!”


A special kind of focussing is involved in this concern with what Leavis called “felt life.”

“Manet’s eye,” observed Mallarmé, “when brought to bear quite new, virginal and abstract, on an object, on persons, sustained to the last the immediate freshness of the encounter.”

But that seeing, as evidenced for example in Manet’s marvellous late flower paintings, is an energetic one.

As Wallace Stevens puts it in a letter in 1944,

It takes an unbelievable vigor to attach oneself to the things that smack one in the eye. It is so much easier to call a wheel a wheel than to see it as, say, Holbein (to take him as an illustration) would see it and to name its parts.

In a discussion of drawing, especially that of Degas, Valéry speaks of how

The artist approaches, leans over, screws his eyes up, his whole body behaving like an instrument of the eye, becoming entirely a means for aiming, pointing, controlling, reducing to focus.


A well-known passage by the British art-theoretician T. E. Hulme from around 1912 in his seminal essay “Romanticism and Classicism” is very much to the point here:

You know what I call architect’s curves—flat pieces of wood with all different kinds of curvature. By a suitable selection from these you can draw approximately any curve you like. The artist I take to be the man who simply can’t bear the idea of that “approximately.” He will get the exact curve of what he sees whether it be an object or an idea in the mind.

That “seeing” is much more than merely visual.


In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer sums up a whole tradition of Romantic contemplation when he says:

We do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but, instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object...

We hear a good deal about that kind of apprehending in Heidegger too, and it figures prominently in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter from Lord Chandos” (1902), principally with respect to its loss.

As the novelist Hermann Broch puts it in an essay on Hofmannstahl,

As long as objects are to you merely an antithesis to your “I,” you will never grasp their real essence, and no amount of intensive observation, description, or copying will help you to do so.... For Hofmannsthal,... insight is complete identification with the object.


But as presented by such luminaries, the apprehending is curiously vague and unspecific—curiously ungrounded.

In The Trespasser, his there-but-for-the-grace-of-God reworking of Jude the Obscure, Lawrence makes clear how stultifying that kind of gazing could be.

If the two Wagner-drenched lovers, Siegmund and Helena, yearn in vain for a vitalizing meeting of souls during their stolen adulterous two weeks on the south-coast holiday Isle of Wight, a major reason for this is that there is nothing there for them to meet in, nothing real for them to share.

In their townee ignorance, the sea and sky and prim landscapes about which they strive to have hyper-sensitive feelings remain simply surfaces which they yearn to see beyond or which they decorate with cute personifications and similes.


It is a much more muscular apprehending that is at work in the art that I am talking about. It involves a strong sense of energies and movements; of bodies in space; of forward-reaching pressures and strivings.

In contrast to William Wordsworth’s and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s vaporous skylarks, the badger of Shelley’s coeval John Clare fighting back with doomed valour in the village street against the heavy-booted louts and the dogs they set on him had been, as Pound would say, there.

And so are Hopkins’ kestrel “riding/ The rolling level underneath him steady air” in “The Windhover,” and Yeats’ swans that “paddle in the cold/ Companionable streams or and climb the air” in “The Wild Swans at Coole,” and the moment in Hardy’s “Afterwards” when “like an eyelid’s soundless blink/ The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight/ Upon the wind-warped upland thorn,” and Robert Frost’s great lake-swimming buck in “The Most of It” that

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush....


So, even more, are those bats and goats and fishes, that poignantly dead mountain lion, that beautiful, venomous, earth-golden Sicilian snake that Lawrence presents us with so unforgettably in his poems.

“Animality,” Nietzsche noted, in 1888, “no longer arouses horror; esprit and happy exuberance.”

Animals as Lawrence presents them are neither ethereal symbols, nor honorific human beings like the poor martyred horse Black Beauty, nor people in all but form like the inhabitants of Kipling’s Jungle Books and Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, nor “bestial” subhumans like the imperfectly humanized creatures in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

They are beings into whose intelligible energies and reachings-forward you can project yourself in a non-sentimental way, as T. H. White’s young Arthur does later on in The Sword in the Stone when Merlin’s magic enables him to “become,” temporarily, in thrilling passages, a bird and a fish—and later still when Ted Hughes evokes his pike and fox and other creatures.


The kind of concentration that I am talking about enabled Virginia Woolf to keep a whole dinner party going in To the Lighthouse, conscious of how all the fifteen highly individual persons present are acting and feeling at any point.

It enabled Conrad to give us the prodigious simultaneities of “Typhoon” and the even more prodigious ones of Nostromo.

It created Anna Karenina.


And the “inanimate,” too, can be experienced in that empathetic fashion.

There is a lovely passage in Richard Jefferies’ autobiographical novel of childhood, Bevis, that nearest English equivalent of Huckleberry Finn and published two years earlier (in 1882). It is a passage that, more than any other that I know, makes real and intelligible the Romantic feeling of being at one with nature.

But essential to that oneness here, both in the experiencing and the rendering of it, is a grasp of the particularity of everything, a grasp made possible by, among other things, young Bevis’s reading about astronomy:

By day the sun as he sat down under the oak, was as much by him as the boughs of the great tree. It was by him like the swallows.
The heavens were as much a part of life as the elms, the oak, the house, the garden and orchard, the meadow and the brook. They were no more separated than the furniture of the parlour, than the old oak tree where he sat, and saw the new moon shine over the mulberry tree. They were neither above nor beneath, they were in the same place with him; just as when you walk in a wood the trees are all about you, on a plane with you, so he felt the constellations and the sun on a plane with him, and that he was moving among them as the earth rolled on, like them, with them, in the stream of space.
The day did not shut off the stars, the night did not shut off the sun; they were always there. Not that he always thought of them, but they were never dismissed. When he listened to the greenfinches sweetly calling in the hawthorne, or when he read his books, poring over the Odyssey, with the sunshine on the wall, they were always there; there was no severance. Bevis lived not only out to the finches and swallows, to the far-away hills, but he lived out and felt out to the sky.
It was living, not thinking. He lived it, never thinking, as the finches lived out their sunny life in the happy days of June. There was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground.
The green path by the strawberries was the centre of the world, and round it by day and night the sun circled in a magical golden ring.

This kind of configuration—a configuration simultaneously of things in their interrelatedness, of the experiencing mind seeing and feeling that interrelatedness, and of the writer rendering the experiencing—is part of what Leavis was pointing to when he talked about “concreteness.”


There are some formal aspects of this “recovering” of the world that I want to touch on in the remaining time.

When writers like Conrad, and Stephen Crane, and Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, and the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby escaped from the grey depressiveness of novels like Jude the Obscure, they did so in part by means of what it is natural to refer to as cinematic techniques.

Or, more precisely, as montage, that building up of a scene, long or short, by a succession of touches, details, juxtapositions, of which the quintessential filmic example is still the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.


Montage, whether in cinema or in literature, acknowledges that when the adrenalin is flowing, we do not see and experience things in a continuum.

When we are well, our bodies, heads, eyes, are always in motion; it is only the depressed self, the paralyzed self, that stares numbly at a scene from a single perspective.

We see selectively, like tiny short-sighted Stephen Dedalus in the undifferentiated blur of a football game when suddenly “Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran away.”

Things come and go, re-entering our attention from different angles and perspectives, in constantly shifting fields of relationships.

Just as they do in mirrors, which, far from flattening reality in a one-to-one reproductiion, make it strange.

In the evening play of childhood, as Kafka recalls it in “Children on a Country Road,”

Stray figures went into the ditches, hardly had they vanished down the dusky escarpment when they were standing like newcomers on the field path above and looking down.... One blinked as now and then a youngster with elbows pressed to his sides sprang over one’s head with dark-looming soles.


And as Conrad, who learned so much from Stephen Crane, knew, things can have a disproportionate “thereness,” cutting across conventional notions of relative importance.

At the end of the slow-motion, Hitchcockian murder of Mr. Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent:

Finding the table in her way [Winnie Verloc] gave it a push with both hands as though it had been alive, with such force that it went for some distance on its four legs, making a loud, scraping racket, whilst the big dish with the joint crashed heavily on the floor.
Then all became still. Mrs. Verloc on reaching the door had stopped. A round hat disclosed in the middle of the floor by the moving of the table rocked slightly on its crown in the wind of her flight.

End of chapter! Click.

There’s no draining away of meaning there!


Furthermore, in the turn-of-the-century drive to perceive, recover, record precisely the way things feel—a drive extending to dreams, nightmares, states of derangement—there was an awareness at times of the looseness of fit between concepts and percepts in unfamiliar situations, and of the linguistic bearings of this.

When the riverboat is attacked from the bank in Heart of Darkness, what we see, what Marlowe sees, is not an-attack-with-arrows-and-spears. Instead, the poleman suddenly and strangely lies down on the deck—”Sticks, little sticks, were flying about—thick... Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!”—, and the speared helmsman

looked at me over his shoulder in an extraordinary, profound, familiar manner, and fell upon my feet. The side of his head hit the wheel twice, and the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool. It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort.

But the implication of such disjunctions is not that we suddenly glimpse below us the abyss over which we are suspended on the membrane of language.


In the best fictions of Stephen Crane, that linguistically most sophisticated of American fictionists, characters are constantly bringing to their experiences prior expectations of what things ought to be like—a battle, a Western town—and finding that they don’t fit their expectations.

But if at times people can be destroyed by that mismatch, like the cowardly Swede in “The Blue Hotel” (1899), they can also, if they are mentally flexible enough, reformulate their conceptions in the light of what is there, and function effectively by seeing more accurately.

This ongoing interplay between the general and the particular, by which we try to cope with the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, is part of the normal processes of living. It is how we make sense—local sense—of the world.

The Great Gatsby is full of that kind of making sense.


In poetry too there was the drive to fasten yourself stylistically to the world of lived experience.

In that major text in modern poetics The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the distinguished American orientalist Ernest Fenollosa pointed out early in the century that “The whole delicate substance of speech is built upon substrata of metaphor. Abstract terms, pressed by etymology, reveal their ancient roots still embedded in direct action.”

As mediated by Pound, Fenollosa’s and Hulme’s insistence on accurate analogy-making—on the need for fresh metaphors and similes that take you back out into the physical world rather than simply being cliché blurs in the mind—has been, of course, a major presence in twentieth-century poetry.

Again, it was Fenollosa who remarked that “I have seldom seen our rhetoricians dwell on the fact that the great strength of our language lies in its splendid array of transitive verbs....”

Around that time, William James complained that in philosophy “Conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs play... the vital part.” In poetry there was a major shift away from that sort of structuring and from the magical use of the copula to create relationships and assert identities.

When Pound, turning Fenollosa’s prose translations of Chinese poems into free verse, opened “The River Merchant’s Wife; a Letter” with:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers...,

he was doing something significantly different from saying, “When I was young” or “When I was a little girl.”


The concern with verbs—with writing sentences in which something or someone does something, rather than simply is—had played its vital part in the religious poetry of Hopkins, himself strongly interested in etymology.

It contributed to the vigour of Yeats’s poetry of generalization and summing-up (“And what rough beast, its year come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”)

It ensured that there was nothing limp or ethereal about those two major philosophical poems, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (1923) in which

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,”

and Valery’s “Le Cimitière Marin,” with its magnificent key-establishing opening lines:

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujuour recommencée!
[This tranquil roof, with walking pigeons, looms
Trembling between the pines, among the tombs;
Precise midday the sea from fire composes—
The sea, the sea, forever rebegun!

Barbara Gibbs]

The roof is the horizon-topped sea, and the birds (“doves” seems a preferable translation here) the distant forms of yachts.

And while we are in that greatest of twentieth-century poetic decades, the culmination of half a century of stylistic development, the 1920s, how about the thrilling opening lines of Rainer Maria Rilke’s incomparable sequence Sonnets to Orpheus (1923).

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.
[A tree ascended there. O pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
A new beginning, beckoning, change appeared

Stephen Mitchell]


An alertness to the energies of verbs made possible the disjunctions and unbalancings of T.S. Eliot’s early—and best—poetry.

April not only “is” the cruellest month, it breeds lilacs out of the dead land, mixes memory and desire, and so forth. The women whose recalled being menaces Prufrock “come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” The fog, cat-like, slips its tongue into the corners of the evening, makes a sudden leap, curls up.

And in the still spine-tingling first three lines of Part III of The Waste Land, we have, in terms of the degrees of energy of the verbs, a crescendo and diminuendo that foregrounds the energies (as embodied in those ostensibly “small” leaves) of decay and death:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Something of that vigour (“Time and the bell have buried the day,” “The dove descending breaks the air,”) would still persist in Four Quartets.


In a famous exchange at one of Mallarmé’s Tuesdays, Degas told the Master, “I do not see why I can’t finish my little poem; after all I have plenty of ideas.” To which Mallarmé replied, “But, Degas, poetry is not written with ideas but with words.”

He did not, however, say that poetry is “merely” words, any more than Degas, if pressed, would have conceded regretfully that his paintings were “merely” canvas and paint.

The concern with the medium that I have been talking about is not an either/or but a both/and affair.

It indeed requires us to resist, to struggle with, the natural set of mind that makes us want immediately to see “through” the artistic object to a beyond— a beyond of ideas, or the permanent state of mind of the artist (his or her “personality”), or a straightforward physical reality of weighable-and-measurable objects that are simply there regardless of how we look at them.

But just as something is both a sheet of paper with ink on it and a love letter; or a cylindrical piece of wood and a death-bearing arrow; so an area on a photograph is both a collection of crystals, and a dark trapezoid that could have been darker had the developing fluid been allowed more time to work on the crystals, and a doorway in an old barn.

And, conversely, if a light-and-heat-drenched painting by Van Gogh draws our gaze across a field of flowers to where red roofs are glimpsed among trees beneath a deep blue Provençal sky, those things are only there for us because of those staccato points of paint, those quick, bold, straight strokes, those swirlings.


In Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), there is a classic account of how you can move from surfaces to depths.

“I’ll show you how to look at a picture, ” Gulley Jimson tells Cokie as they gaze at a Degas-like painting (his own) of a woman bathing herself:

“Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eye.... And first you feel the shapes in the flat—the patterns, like a carpet.... And then you feel it in the round.... Not as if it were a picture of anyone. But a coloured and raised map. You feel all the rounds, the smooths, the sharp edges, the flats and the hollows, the lights and shades, the cools and warms. The colours and textures. There’s hundreds of little differences all fitting together....
And then you feel the bath, the chair, the towel, the carpet, the bed, the jug, the window, the fields and the woman as themselves. But not as any old jug and woman. But the jug of jugs and the woman of women. You feel jugs are like that and you never knew it before. Jugs and chairs can be very expressive.... A jug can be a door if you open it. And a work of imagination opens it for you.
And then you feel with all the women that ever lived and all the women that are ever going to live, and you feel their feeling while they are alone with themselves—in some chosen private place, bathing, drying, dressing, criticizing, touching, admiring themselves safe behind locked doors. Nothing there but women’s feeling and women’s beauty and critical eye.”

I shall leave us there. Next time I shall look more carefully into the abyss that I have so insouciantly skirted thus far.


Return To Top
Preface Nihilism Peaks Together Bibliography