. . . justifications

. . .

"That is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye've time to know."

The proprieter of Everything Burns remarks on a compare-and-contrast opportunity:

I wonder if Don Marquis was familiar with Attar's The Conference of the Birds.
Attar's moth searches for understanding and truth; Marquis's moth craves beauty and excitement. The lovers' justifications differ but not their consummation.

Or would a more appropriate word be consumption? In post-archy America, as we noted a few days ago, enlightenment became available only to the purchaser of The Real Thing (just ask the man who owns one), the production of wanting something that badly became industry's chief concern, and now we'd say the moth has bought it.

. . .

Function at the Junction

There's a lot of ink spilled over 'meaning' by literary theorists (you noticed that, too?) There isn't much discussion of 'function' (in the relevant sense). But, actually, there is a pretty obvious reason why 'function' would be the preferable point of focus. It's more neutral. It is hardly obvious that every bit of a poem that does something has to mean something. Meter doesn't mean anything. (Not obviously.) But it contributes to the workings of the work. (If you are inclined to insist it 'means', probably all you really mean is that it 'does'. It is important.) "A poem should not mean but be" is somewhat overwrought, in a well-wrought urnish way; but 'a poem should not mean, but do' would be much better.

Has any literary theorist really written about 'functions', in this sense?

- John Holbo (with a follow-up on intention and Wordsworth-quoting water sprites)

Analytic philosophers often sound like a blind man describing an elephant by holding the wrong end of a stick several blocks away from the zoo. This is one of those oftens.

When talking about species-wide traits, we need to keep track of teleological scales. One can easily invent (and very rarely find evidence for) evolutionary justifications for play or sexual variability among mammals. But that's not quite the same as asking the function of this tennis ball to the dog who wants it thrown, or of this foot to the cat who's ready for a game of tag, or of this photo of Keanu Reeves to the man gazing so intently. Particulars call for another vocabulary, and art is all about the particulars.

In the broadest sense, art doesn't have a function for homo sapiens it is a function of homo sapiens. Humans perceive-and-generate patterns in biologically and socially inseparable processes which generally precede application of those patterns. That's what makes the species so adaptable and dangerous. Even in the most rational or practical occupations, we're guided to new utilitarian results by aesthetics. Software engineers, for example, are offended by bad smells and seek a solution that's "Sweet!"

Making of art in the narrower sense may be power display or sexual display, may be motivated by devotion or by boredom. Taking of art touches a wider range of motives, and covers a wider range of materials: more art is experienced than art is made. Clumped with all possible initiators or reactions, an artwork or performance doesn't have a function it is a function: a social event. Whether a formal affair or strictly clothing-optional, the take-away's largely up to the participant.

As you can probably tell by my emphasized verb switches, I disagree with John Holbo's emendation of Archibald MacLeish. Yes, Ezra Pound and the Italian Futurists thought of their poems as machines which made fascists; yes, Woodie Guthrie thought of his guitar as a machine that killed them. But I've read the ones and heard the other and I didn't explode, and so the original formula's slightly more accurate, if only because it's slightly vaguer.

Still, when you get down to cases, "to be" and "to do" are both components of philosophical propositions. Whereas, as bog scripture teaches, the songness of song springs from their oscillation.

Like function, intentionality tends to be too big a brush wielded in too slapdash a fashion. CGI Wordsworth and miraculous slubmers in the sand sound closer to "performance art" than "poetry," but obviously such aberrations can't accurately be consigned to any existing genre. Nevertheless, I honestly and in natural language predict that insofar as my reaction to them wasn't a nervous breakdown or a religious conversion, it would have to be described as aesthetic: a profound not-obviously-utilitarian awareness of pattern.

Most art is intentionally produced, and, depending on the skill and cultural distance of the artists, many of its effects may be intended. And yes, many people intentionally seek entertainment, instruction, or stimulation. But as with any human endeavor, that doesn't cover the territory. (Did Larry Craig run his fingers under the toilet stall with political intent? Did that action have political consequences?) Acknowledging a possible typo doesn't make "Brightness falls from the air" any less memorable; the Kingsmen's drunken revelation of infinite indefinite desire made a far greater "Louie Louie" than the original cleanly enunciated Chuck Berry ripoff. Happy accident is key to the persistence of art across time, space, and community, and, recontextualized, any tool can become an object of delight or horror. A brick is useful in a wall, or as a doorstop, or as a marker of hostility or affection. But when the form of brick is contemplated with pleasure and awe and nostalgia, by what name may we call it?

Ignatz Mouse looks at Monument Valley


a poet should not be

A poet should not be mean.

Jordan Davis writes:

Setting aside Holbo's unfortunate reversion to Macleish's formula, I find his distinction between function and meaning (use and mention) useful when discussing the 99 percent of poetry that does not get discussed. To play in prime time, every last function has to show up dressed as meaning.

Ben Friedlander on a tangent: 'it's the obscurity of the near-great and almost-good that gets to the heart of things. Which for me is not the bad conscience of tradition (the correction of perceived injustice, which is where tradition and avant-garde clasp hands and sing), but its good conscience, the belief that there are those who "deserve to be forgotten."'

You're right that I sound too dismissive of a valuable insight. It's that damned analytic-philosophy lack of noticing that gets me down. A poem or play does "function" when it works as a poem or play, but how and why it functions isn't shared by all poems or plays, or by all experiences of the poem or play. The Shepheardes Calender and "Biotherm" functioned differently for their contemporaries than for me; even further, the effect of the Calender likely varied between Gabriel Harvey and John Taylor, and "Biotherm" likely did different numbers on Bill Berkson and Robert Lowell. None of this is news to you, of course, but Holbo's formulation doesn't seem to allow room for it.

Jordan again:

To take your point about Holbo -- I appear to have misread him as having spoken about apparent aporias -- I thought he meant that one accustomed to kaleidoscopes might not know how to hold a bicycle.

Beautifully put. And it's just as likely that I misread him, lured into hostile waters by the chance to make that graffiti joke.

But surely 'functions' is a plural enough noun to cover a plurality of cases, no? (How not?)

Way to bum my disputatious high, dude. I've been kneejerking against the vocabulary of John's examples, but, yes, another way to read him (and it's the way Joseph Kugelmass and Bill Benzon read him) puts us more in the same camp.

. . .

Good Enough

I'm reluctant to call anything a "cultural universal," even something that pretty much decides whether an archaeologist announces the discovery of "culture," but art-making is certainly more universal than the justifications offered for art-making. Which is not to say that art is best when motivated least but merely to confess that, as with other cultural near-universals (marriage, say), any particular motivation won't suffice for the general case. Or even for the particular.

Thus the let-down. Thanks to the Republican furloughs I finally disgorged the "ethical criticism" essay that lodged between brain and trachea for a year and a half, and to quote Lord Bullingdon "I have not received satisfaction." Not that I could receive satisfaction, I know that much by now. Cross-posting to the Valve would've bought me at most a day or two, and appearing in a print organ would've sickened me for months instead of weeks. The least miserable producers I know avoid hangovers by making sure a new project's underway by the time the old one's facing the public. With this dayjob, though, the best I can manage is hair of the dog.

Of course I am obscure; I am not offering myself but my hospitality. Nor do I hawk my hospitality abroad. I give out indications of my willingness to dispense hospitality on a basis that protects my integrity as a host.
- Laura Riding, letter to the Times Literary Supplement, March 3 1932,
six years before closing her quaint-curiosity-shoppe-with-New-York-deli-service

Given my mood, I wondered why our beloved metameat didn't flourish das Gift, but upon reflection in someone else's mirror I realized that probably once you've learned German and read Finnegans Wake and a shitload of critical theory you'd get a little tired of that particular false friend, even if no false friend was ever better named.

Or was it? Maybe we can't trust it even that far. A perfect false friend, like a perfect rhyme or perfect pun, should be the product of miraculous chance. Whereas Gift is poison because poison is something given:

[Com. Teut.: OE. ghift str. fem. (recorded only in the sense 'payment for a wife', and in the plural with the sense 'wedding') corresponds to OFris. jeft fem., gift, MDu. gift(e) (Du. gift fem., gift, gift neut., now more commonly gif, poison), OHG. gift fem., gift, poison (MHG., mod.G. gift fem., gift, neut., poison), ON. gift, usually written gipt gift (Sw., Da. -gift in compounds), pl. giptar a wedding, Goth. -gifts in compounds.... The two words 'gift/Gift' in English and German both have the common germanic ancestor geban 'to give'. The rest is separate development through many centuries. The word for 'to poison' used to be 'vergeben'', but it went out of use because of its homophone meaning 'to forgive', and became 'vergiften'.]

It's a gift a present rather than a presentation because, like it or not, no matter how loudly we protest our detachment, in a (falsely?) friendly act the giver is there, is implicated. The detective calls his suspects to dismiss them: the victim was poisoned by herself, in a single dose from a table service blunder, or absorbed over a lifetime of serial killing.

Speaking of etymology:

[< Anglo-Norman poisoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French poisun, puisun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French poison, puison, puisson, Old French poisson, pouson, Middle French poyson (French poison) drink, draught (end of the 11th cent.), poisonous drink (1155), potion, medicinal drink (c1165), poisonous substance (1342) < classical Latin potion-, potio (see POTION n.). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan poison drink, draught (c1150), potion (c1200), poison (early 13th cent.).]

So maybe "Name your poison" isn't such an impressive joke either.

SCOTTIE: "Here, Judy. Drink this straight down, just like medicine."
JUDY: "Why are you doing this? What good will it do?"
SCOTTIE: "I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know."


you sayin it ought to be the gifted Mr Ripley?

Now there was an artist without regrets!

Jonathan Mayhew kindly writes:

I love that idea that "art-making is certainly more universal than the justifiications for art-making." That encapsulates something I've been trying to get my head around for awhile.

. . .

Bye, 2016; so long, all that

I loved my country my United States, headed by a well-funded and unabashedly ambitious federal government I loved my country about as much as any halfway sane person could love an unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstraction. Which seems only natural since it had rescued, fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and boosted me and my brother after having rescued and supported our parents.

Of course (being halfway sane) I knew big government was frequently inept, hypocritical, and unjust to the point of murder. But it was also the only rival to and our only defense against the unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstractions of big business and big religion, both of which were at least as frequently inept, hypocritical, unjust, and murderous. And where big businesses and big churches could cheat, lie, embezzle, extort, and rape with virtual impunity, big government's pretense of public service left its miscreants nominally (and therefore sometimes actually) susceptible to public inspection and public penalty.

Even while I and my brother were swaddled by socialism, big business and big religion began negotiating an unholy alliance. As of the 1980 election, its success was no longer deniable. But I kept a sullen, resentful faith. My country had absorbed such body blows before and re-righted itself. Weren't the allegiances of evangelical with Jew around Zionism, and evangelical with Catholic around abortion, and church with plutocracy around ignorance inherently unstable?

After the 2000 election, "my country" suddenly looked less like world-as-is and more like a vulnerable blip. 2001 confirmed its vulnerability; the 2004 election guaranteed its loss. Seventy years, approximately the lifespan of the Third Republic.

You know how these things go, though. We understand our loved ones will die, and yet the day finds us unprepared. We understand that gambling is lucrative business; we noticed the casino staff repeatedly extract ever larger winnings and repeatedly produce ever colder decks. And yet when we blankly watch our chips, checks, bonds, mortgage, and IOUs squeegeed dry across the table, it's a shock.

A shock but no surprise.1 No need to waste weeks arguing over how we might have played that last card better. No infallibly winning card was left in this particular game. If we hadn't lost this deal, we would have lost the next one.

At least our razed territory holds plenty of company. Like successful totalitarians of the past, our new leaders didn't let themselves be distracted by the unpopularity of their goals; instead they focused on gaining power by any means at hand, and then guaranteeing continued power by any means at hand. This they interpret as a heroic win against overwhelmingly unfair odds by dint of their superior brilliance and talent.

They've recently attempted to adapt their self-justifications for a wider audience with spins like "saving our country from urban scum" or "defending America against California" or simply "making those fuckers squirm." And of course, as soon as their eminent domain's established they begin demolishing anything in the path of the propaganda superhighway notably the distasteful slums of reality-based journalism, education, and research. But for a brief while yet, our rulers remain a lunatic fringe who defy majority opinion on almost every policy, and we retain some belief that a democracy should at least vaguely represent its people. History suggests that's common ground enough to push from.

1   Well, one surprise, at least for me. I never anticipated Vladimir Putin as leader of a new Axis. Awfully exceptionalist of me. After "patriotism" lost any connotation of service or sacrifice (even the trivial financial sacrifice of taxes), and frankly selfish plutocrats could reach office without need of political stand-ins, who better to inspire them than the leading exponent of the globalized shakedown state? And whereas Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's attempts at foreign influence relied on native "thought-leaders" who never quite met spec, now misinformation and propaganda, like every other form of publishing, can bypass the middleman (unless, of course, the middleman is a national firewall), and Russia's greatest export, the bot-troll cyborg, can work from the comfort of home.


Thanks, Bo Diddley.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.