Sunday, July 27, 2008

still the blacklist

In 1960 Chandler Davis wrote an essay-length memoir of his experience on the academic blacklist. Here is a link to the whole piece. And below is the opening:

I am not a professor. Maybe I never will be one.

My apprenticeship was honorable, as a teaching fellow at Harvard, where I got my Ph.D. in mathematics, and as an instructor at the University of Michigan. I loved the university life. Not that it occurred to me at the time to compare it to any other; I had never seriously considered leaving it.

However, it happened that one summer ten distinguished members of my faculty convened (five at a time) and unanimously declared me guilty of “deviousness, artfulness, and indirection hardly to be expected of a University colleague.” I had refused, first before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and then before these juries of professors, to answer yes or no to the question, was I a Communist. The juries could assume (with that background and in the year 1954) that their recommendation that I be fired would mean my complete expulsion from the profession.

In fact my life as a mathematician, though attentuated, is not extinguished. I have managed to get a certain amount of research done. I show up at Math Society meetings. My fellow mathematicians, who stood up for me most gratifyingly when distinguished juries were telling them I was not fit for their company, still welcome me to their company. They gave me the pleasure and honor of a year’s fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. Currently I have an editorial job with our reviewing journal—a position of, at any rate, responsibility.

But the universities—the universities of America have so far opened only their back door to me, only a crack, though I knocked at their front door, politely but unmistakably, for years.

So now under their window what song do I raise? A howl of grief? Have I risen to haunt you, displaying my shocking wounds to wrench your conscience? Not precisely.

To prove that I am fit to teach would be too easy to be interesting. I was exiled from academe, not as an incompetent, but as a heretic. To prove that my heresies meet your standards of tolerability or your dean’s (though it might be difficult enough, all right) would be uninteresting because too special. There is a considerable fraternity of academic exiles these days, and there is no need to single me out from it.

Chan Davis was married to Natalie Zemon Davis, the historian. A magazine called Michigan Today tells the story of accusations made against them as communists. Here is a link to that article.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

the Ubu of 1960

At right, Paul Claudel playing solitaire.

I’ve written here before about the state of surrealism in 1960, and now I want to return to the matter and have a longer look at Wallace Fowlie, arguably the most important explainer and promoter of French surrealism in the U.S. at the time.

Fowlie taught modern French literature at Bennington, Chicago, and Yale, and in 1964 went to Duke where he stayed until the end. His last book, written when he was 85, was about Rimbaud and Jim Morrisson of The Doors: The Poet as Rebel. In one remembrance I found on the web, a student of Fowlie’s recalls the great teacher’s “celibacy and minimalism,” remembers going to Fowlie’s apartment for a b.s. session with other students and being mesmerized by the Jim Morrisson poster on the wall which he saw while hearing Fowlie intone that he was simply a faithful Catholic. The student was astonished and delighted by what he considered a remarkable contrast or convergence. But no contrast at all: Fowlie was a devotee of surrealism, Catholicism and the literary tradition that produced such figures as Narcissus, Hamlet, and the clown.

In 1960 he published a new edition (put out by Hillary House) of his 1957 book on Paul Claudel. He also published his Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theater (Meridian, ’60), a dual-language book published by Bantam called French Stories/Contes Francais, the Gateway Editions edition of Claudel’s Break of Noon and another of Claudel’s Tidings Brought to Mary, and yet another Claudel edition brought out by Regnery (all in 1960).

In his time Fowlie was underestimated by literary academia in the U.S. David O’Connell has written that this “is the reaction that any man of staunch moral conviction who is also prolific arouses in an age of confusion and mediocrity.” Probably so. But there’s more: Fowlie avoided the huge existentialist fad that ran through modern language and English departments in the fifties and sixties, and was somewhat left out because of what seemed an Old School attitude. Actually, New School...for Fowlie’s indifference to the existentialist fad – a response to apparent desire among undergrads to read deep stuff in French lit classes – was an affirmation of surrealism as the main current from early modernism to his time.

A crucial document is Fowlie’s “Surrealism in 1960,” a commentary piece written for Poetry Magazine. He looks back at surrealist automatic writing. It was a means, he says, by which the surrealists attempted by reach the absolute. They intended to reveal the emptiness and falsity of logical discourse, and to emancipate words from the bondage of rhetorical speech. While automatic writing might have failed – the surrealists themselves felt it didn’t do entirely what they’d wanted – Fowlie suggests that that part of the surrealist project has had a great influence on later writers. He commends the surrealists’ renunciation of “all activity of control over speech” (through which it was hoped that people would emerge as themselves).

So in this piece he looks at surrealists in his day – ’60. He sees that Jean Paulhan, Maurice Blanchot, and Raymond Queneau, in their conception of language “as a new instrument,” are essentially surrealists.

He discusses Henri Michaux and Francis Ponge in the surrealist context.

And he looks back to Jarry’s character Ubu, the “representative of surrealist humor,” and finds that Raymond Queneau “today is still expressing in a recognizably surrealist way this doctrine of humor.” Queneau is the Ubu of 1960.

It’s 1960, yes, and the year in which Donald Allen published the great New American Poetry anthology, but separately and parallel (but not intersecting, as surrealism is not a conscious consideration in the structure of Allen’s book – except indirectly through the poems there by Ashbery and the comic-surrealist strain in some lines of the Beats). Perhaps a more important point than anything implied by the consolidation of the New Americans in Allen is something Wallace Fowlie added toward the end of “Surrealism in 1960”: “An historical study of surrealism makes it out to be anti-literary and anti-poetical. Yet today it seems to us the founder of a new literature and a new poetry."

One last thing about Fowlie before I leave him. He was born in Brookline, Mass., with no connection to France or things French (except indirectly through some forms of Catholicism). But one day, as a child, he happened to be at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston where the French Ambassador to the U.S. - yes, it was Paul Claudel himself - gave an utterly incomprehensible speech. The young Wallace Fowlie knew right then what he wanted to do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

boomlay-booming after modernism

Late in ’59, Eleanor Ruggles’ biography of Vachel Lindsay was published and there was briefly a revival of interest – most of it doubtful – in Lindsay as a chanting performing poet. Two other biographical books had been published, a first by Edgar Lee Masters in 1935, a second in ’52, a fictionalized biography, by a then-young Mark Harris.

This new book brought out Kenneth Rexroth and Granville Hicks, veterans by then of the political-poetry wars. Rexroth had not much good to say about where Lindsay fit: naively American, a dreamer of the (false) American Dream. Today, Rexroth guessed, Lindsay would be a “mildly rightish liberal, a common-sense New Dealer,” essentially a patriotic Midwestern populist, “hopelessly naïve.” The poetry had been “not very good.”

For Hicks, Lindsay stood against – or ran differently from or parallel to – modern poetry. “He was enthusiastic and hopeful; the moderns are secretive and dark.” Yet Harriet Monroe published him in 1913, and Yeats deemed him “the great native American genius.” When Monroe printed VL’s poem about the Salvation Army’s General Booth (“General Booth Enters into Heaven”) in Poetry she made sure to include the parenthetical instructions for bass drum, banjo, flute, etc., that made it a poem with a difference: one meant to be chanted, sung, performed.

In ’59 he was “eccentric and faintly embarrassing.” He’d literally walked around the Northwest in the first years of the 20th century, provisioned with a pack of poems and no money. He traded poems and talk for food, and announced to astonished citizens of small towns in Oregon and Washington State that “I am the sole active member of the ancient brotherhood of the troubadours.” In the non-Poundian sense of the term, he might have been right at that moment.

Lindsay made performance poetry – poetry printed as a score for chanted performance – something Rotary Clubs and high-school assembly attendees knew as part of the modern American poetic landscape. It’s NOT that – as Time mag put it in its November 23, 1959 issue – Vachel Lindsay was out of date and that “chanting about the heartland seemed naïve to readers caught by the puzzles of The Waste Land.” No. The trick would be whether we could ever – in light of these dismissals at the end of the 50s – see that the Eliotic collaged dramatic monologues and snatches of ritual on the one hand and the boomlay-booming scored chants of another Midwesterner were actually part of the same movement.

The Vachel Lindsay PennSound page has a few crucial recordings, including "The Congo" and one of my favorites, "The Mysterious Cat."

sources: Rexroth in The Nation, Nov 28, 1959, p. 404; Hicks in Saturday Review Nov 21, 1959, p. 39. Ruggles’ bio is called The West-Going Heart (Norton).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

nude descending toward formalism

We've seen poet X. J. Kennedy around (at Breadloaf). In '60 he published a satire of modernism, a poem titled "Nude Descending a Staircase" after--of course--the 1912 Marcel Duchamp painting that by '60 had become iconic of the cubist and futurist side of the revolution in art. The Duchamp painting, shown at the 1913 Armory Show, depicted the motion of a nude woman by presenting her as successive superimposed images, similar to stroboscopic motion photography. In 1913 this was scandalous.

How do we know X. J. Kennedy's poem of 1960 satirizes the Duchamp? Well, would a sincere homage be given in perfectly rhymed ABCB tetrameter quatrains? (Tetrameter with internal rhyme too: "Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh, / A gold of lemon, root and rind") Duchamp's was a form-busting breakthrough, characterized by energy. Kennedy in '60 counters with lines of stasis about the woman's movement: "One-woman waterfall, she wears / Her slow descent like a long cape / And pausing, on the final stair / Collects her motions into shape." In other words, the poem has found her at a certain moment of descent. She collects motions into shape.

There's a condescending pun here: For Kennedy the nude Duchampian woman has "nothing on"... that is to say, nothing on her mind. Empty-headed, stupid or, at best: she is the opposite of the creator of her movement--the object of the modernist subject. And to be sure she's an object, the poet of '60 looks up at her, standing beneath the banister, watching from below as her thighs thresh.

The multiplicity of places from which to observe (all at once - famously, the revolution Duchamp augured here) has become a single p.o.v., and satirically gendered ("we" are gaping at the body, nude upskirt). If Kennedy meant to praise kinetic modernism, then he created a major formal irony in doing so, and completely undoes the aesthetic of the "one-woman waterfall" he sets in stiff rhyming lines.

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.