Friday, May 22, 2020

"When we with Sappho"—further notes from a time of global pandemic

Watching an American poet contribute an online performance to the newly virtualized Riga Biennial of International Contemporary Art brought home to me again just how much the pandemic has accelerated a worldwide cultural process that we might once have described as already moving at warp speed, before that fossilized metaphor was ruined by recent history.

It made me realize with renewed melancholy just how much is going to be lost for no better reason than that nobody can make sense of it in terms of their own very different experience—although we can hope it will be a broadly planet-spanning experience, there are reasons to suppose it might not be. Some things will be lost without anyone noticing, no matter what happens next.

This has happened before, however, and for more reasons than I want to cite, attention spans being what they are. Most of Greek and Roman literature got dropped when the literate classes stopped buying scrolls and started buying the newly developed codices that connected separate pages between covers so you could jump right to the part of the book you wanted without having to roll that one big long sheet of papyrus from one rod to the other rod.

That, plus changing tastes in literature, probably had more to do with how Sappho’s poems got lost than the burning of the library of Alexandria or deliberate censorship. But that’s why we have a wonderfully evocative set of little quotations pulled from later grammarians’ commentaries on how weirdly the ancestors contorted their poems. Will large parts of several thousand years of global literature survive similarly because they were transformed into internet memes and ascribed to the wrong writers in the process? Or will they be captured as bits of online performance arbitrarily preserved in future media, and extracted by later generations who will spend years finding out who actually wrote what? It is pointless to speculate.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote an amazing erotic poem called “When We With Sappho” that starts from an epigraph of one of those evocative little ancient fragments, but I’m going to make you look it up instead of providing a link to the surprisingly numerous sites on which you can read his poem.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What one does while waiting out a pandemic: a note meant to be more provocative than it appears

I wrote this as a friends-only post for Facebook, the method I typically use to address a large but quite specific audience. Circumstances make me believe there is no way to post this there in the midst of immediate personal tragedies without seeming monumentally insensitive, so I am semi-concealing this meditation on Counterforces.

I write this right after listening to an NPR interview with a nurse who drove from Boise, Idaho to Harlem Hospital to volunteer for the Covid-19 ward, and feel more than ever my incompetence in the face of a tragedy that demands the simplest and least reflective responses, such as sewing cloth masks for those who need them.

On the other hand, I have been remembering recently the Polish émigré poet Czeslaw Milosz’ account, in his autobiography Native Realm, of being suddenly pinned down by the machine gun fire of the unanticipated Warsaw Uprising while walking to a friend’s house to discuss the project of translating T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Polish, and then crawling to another friend’s house where he spent two weeks, hiding whenever the SS searched the building. He used the time to read a comprehensive history of the Polish peasantry, an activity that stood him in good stead when he became a cultural attaché in the foreign service of the Communist government installed by the Red Army. But that, as usual, is not the main point of this post.

I am probably the only person in Atlanta (not the only one in America, I feel certain) who has currently felt the need to reread, if not Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, then Kenneth Rexroth’s commentary on it in More Classics Revisited, pp. 115-117, which I was able to find online. Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 recommendation of Turgenev’s novel ( withholds the salient episode to which I want to refer, and which Rexroth makes central to his argument, so consider this a spoiler alert.

Fathers and Sons was the first Russian novel that Western European writers of the 1860s took seriously. It presents the tensions between well-off, socially and politically liberal fathers on their estates in the countryside, and their socially and politically radical sons Arkady and Bazarov, back from university, sneering at their fathers’ insufficiently radical political and social views and identifying with the peasants, who regard the kids as a couple of buffoons.

The sons end up taking over from their fathers, Arkady becoming an enlightened landowner and Bazarov, more intransigently radical, becoming a country doctor who dies from accidentally infecting himself with typhus during an autopsy. Rexroth identifies this as a key episode in the greatest of Turgenev’s “ecological tragedies,” in which, according to Rexroth’s hypothesis, “Turgenev’s heroes die in the midst of their biota. In the final analysis that is why they die, not because they are political outcasts, impotent rebels, or superfluous men, but because something has gone wrong with their interconnectedness with the living world.”

Rexroth ended his analysis with this paragraph: “The years since Fathers and Sons have been years of revolutionary change and search for the meaning of life. The critics of each generation have concluded by saying, ‘Fathers and Sons is peculiarly appropriate to our time.’ Today we live at a moment in history of unparalleled incoherence, with ‘an old world dead and a new powerless to be born.’ …We are out of phase with the living world around us. We are all Bazarovs. Unlike him, few are innocent.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Prolegomenon to Any Future Art Criticism, with Apologies to Readers for the Allusion to Immanuel Kant

Olafur Eliasson’s “I Grew Up in Solitude and Silence” is a simple work of art that, like so many simple works of art, reveals more about the perceiver, the person who experiences the artwork, than far more complex works ever could.

As photographed in 1991 in Copenhagen, the work consists of a white candle fixed to the center of a circular mirror. In this photograph, which I encountered as a shared image posted without commentary, the lighted candle is thus the only thing reflected in the mirror against a nearly uniform background. Other iterations, shown in other photographs on Eliasson’s website, were situated in more complicated surroundings.

Seeing the photograph, I immediately thought of “burning the candle at both ends” and wondered if the idiom exists in other languages. Many other associations flickered across my mind: the doubling of the light by the power of reflection, for one; but above all the image conveyed what Eliasson’s title (which wasn’t attached to the photograph I saw) conveys: a poetic isolation in which the only thing mirrored is the candle and its own light.

Eliasson’s webpage ( contains a quotation from a catalogue essay that is in many ways the quintessence of art criticism (I assume that the description in the following paragraph is Eliasson’s, and the passage in quotation marks is by Biesenbach and Marcoci):

A candle situated at the centre of a circular mirror burns slowly, gradually reducing in size. The reflection extends the candle into virtual space with flames burning at both ends.

'Here one’s perception is split between the experiential narrative of watching the candle slowly burn and the projected narrative of anticipating different scenarios about the object. According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, the mind tackles duration as a simultaneous process merging past memory and future projection within a continually unfolding present. Looking at the flickering flame, the viewer thus experiences three overlapping temporalities: memory, actual perception, and projected narrative. The latter is essentially an amplified, fastforward version of what happens in the present, but it summarizes any number of likely scenarios (the candle gradually becomes shorter as it burns; the wax drips on the mirrored surface; the mirror gets too hot and cracks under the candle’s increasing heat; viewers approach the work to look more closely and see their reflections in the mirror). At once absorbing and analytical, the work exists only for the duration of the burning candle, yet it calls up a roster of prior experiences and corporeal states.'

(Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci, 'Toward the Sun: Olafur Eliasson's Protocinematic Vision," in Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, 2008, p. 190)

—This passage from Biesenbach and Marcoci is valid as far as it goes, in that it describes what they experienced when they looked at the artwork. There is in fact “memory, actual perception, and projected narrative” going on when a viewer looks at this artwork (and further complexity is added when the viewer knows the title of the piece). But the assumption that the viewer experiences only “projected narrative” is too simple. My immediate response involved memory (of the commonplace saying) and a series of less than fully formed associations, any one of which could be followed in metaphoric directions. Not one of them involved the future state of the candle, although that would have come into my mind soon after the awareness (which I did have) that for the viewer to stand in a position in which they were reflected in the mirror would change the artwork and add a new layer of possible meaning. In a photograph of the work, of course, this cannot happen.

None of this has anything to do with what Henri Bergson was talking about, and reflects the fact that Biesenbach and Marcoci were perfectly capable of writing as though the first thing that popped into their profoundly educated heads was the only possible interpretation of the viewer’s experience of the artwork.

But the more likely immediate experience, which I suspect was not only mine but that of the person who posted the photograph on social media, is “Oh, wow.”

In other words, whether in a photograph or, I suspect, in situ, the immediate experience is of a simply arranged set of objects that evoke unconscious associations with emotions attached to them. Only afterwards does the experience of wordless wonder (or inarticulate expressions of amazement) give rise to thought.

I also suspect, though, that this artwork is more difficult to stage than I initially assumed; the candle would have to be a dripless one in order to remain for more than a brief moment in the condition seen in the photograph, and this would ensure that the imagined outcome of wax dripping onto the mirror is a hypothesis of a future that can exist only in Biesenbach and Marcoci’s imagination. But this is how we experience not only the imagined future but the perceived present; we make our best guesses of what it is we are experiencing, based on what we remember of what happened in the past. Our best guesses are quite often wrong. My own guess here, based on the photograph of pristine perfection I initially saw, was itself wrong; one of the work’s other iterations, in visually cluttered surroundings, features a candle that is already dripping wax down the side. But that means that the pristine moment of aesthetic amazement captured by the photograph is an artwork that belongs to the realm of photography, not to the realm of installation art in which such elegantly ordered permanence is always a fiction.

The question is, do art critics have any business explaining all this? Should they sound so smugly magisterial when they do it?

Is art criticism limited to commenting upon the gasp of admiration when we first see the image or the work itself—with, at most, the further notation that different viewers will have radically different experiences of the work once they are done with gasping admiringly? Art journalism, certainly, has column inches enough to say no more than that. But how far ought the critic to go in awakening the viewer to the potential depths of their first simple experience?

I’ve spent more years wrestling with that than I care to think, and I still don’t know the answer. The temptation is always to say “Oh, wow,” and settle for that.