Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame. Take the moral law and make a nave of it And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus, The conscience is converted into palms, Like windy citherns hankering for hymns. We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take The opposing law and make a peristyle, And from the peristyle project a masque Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness, Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last, Is equally converted into palms, Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm, Madame, we are where we began. Allow, Therefore, that in the planetary scene Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed, Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade, Proud of such novelties of the sublime, Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres. This will make widows wince. But fictive things Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth– Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth– A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?– If design govern in a thing so small.
In June, amid the golden fields, I saw a groundhog lying dead. Dead lay he; my senses shook, And mind outshot our naked frailty. There lowly in the vigorous summer His form began its senseless change, And made my senses waver dim Seeing nature ferocious in him. Inspecting close his maggots’ might And seething cauldron of his being, Half with loathing, half with a strange love, I poked him with an angry stick. The fever arose, became a flame And Vigour circumscribed the skies, Immense energy in the sun, And through my frame a sunless trembling. My stick had done nor good nor harm. Then stood I silent in the day Watching the object, as before; And kept my reverence for knowledge Trying for control, to be still, To quell the passion of the blood; Until I had bent down on my knees Praying for joy in the sight of decay. And so I left; and I returned In Autumn strict of eye, to see The sap gone out of the groundhog, But the bony sodden hulk remained. But the year had lost its meaning, And in intellectual chains I lost both love and loathing, Mured up in the wall of wisdom. Another summer took the fields again Massive and burning, full of life, But when I chanced upon the spot There was only a little hair left, And bones bleaching in the sunlight Beautiful as architecture; I watched them like a geometer, And cut a walking stick from a birch. It has been three years, now. There is no sign of the groundhog. I stood there in the whirling summer, My hand capped a withered heart, And thought of China and of Greece, Of Alexander in his tent; Of Montaigne in his tower, Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
A return to Nature? To origins of faith? To a simple freedom in a wild land, and new understandings, with death in view? To visions of Romantic Primitivism becoming modern?:
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn Their boisterous devotion to the sun, Not as a god, but as a god might be, Naked among them, like a savage source. Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, Out of their blood, returning to the sky; And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice, The windy lake wherein their lord delights, The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, That choir among themselves long afterward. They shall know well the heavenly fellowship Of men that perish and of summer morn. And whence they came and whither they shall go The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
There are definitely interesting things going on with light in Wyeth’s work. It fills his paintings. I also find my eye and mind hovering between realist depiction and abstract arrangement of objects on the canvas.
‘Beneath the frequent prettiness, most of the pictures are just this side of harrowing, not just lonesome and melancholy but portraits of life as it seeps inevitably away. The wind that lifts the lace curtain in Wind from the Sea makes the hair on your arms stand up. Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son and a celebrated artist himself, confesses to being puzzled by the benign view of Wyeth’s work. “My father’s work is terrifying,” he said. It’s not sentimental. It’s luminous! But in a creepy way.’
Like many Americans, I find myself drawn to what I would call a New England plainness and Yankee work ethic and aesthetic, which is evident is some of Wyeth’s landscapes, at least. Long winters and deep woods. Shorter distances and stonier soil in the meadows. Perhaps a Puritan, high-minded spiritual reserve.
Or perhaps the Shaker work song ‘Simple Gifts’ adapted by Aaron Copland might be a good example of what I’m trying to get at.
So, is this representative of Wyeth? Perhaps. He did much of his work in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Maine, but according to Wikipedia there may be other influences as well:
‘N.C. also fostered an inner self-confidence to follow one’s own talents without thought of how the work is received. N.C. wrote in a letter to Wyeth in 1944:
“The great men [ Thoreau, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy] forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect — to score a hit — does not know what he is missing!”‘
So, I’m speculating. Addition: There’s also a strong modernist-influenced creative imagination at work here too, and like Hopper, the American question of what to do with all that space and wilderness.
Yet, a man able to walk familiar land, seeing it anew with keen eyes, hoping his senses pick up more than he knows, having a medium with which to express his thoughts seems a man who’s had some success in life, regardless of popular appreciation.
Of course, a concupiscent eye must come into tension with other parts of a man’s character.
Or at least when there was a tittering about his ‘Helga‘ paintings a while back.
‘Stopping to rest near a group of European spring beauties, he saw on a trail above him a young woman on a walk. Assuming she was alone, she moved off the trail, lifted her skirt, and defecated in the grass. Wyeth was charmed. “The white curve of her bottom was amazing,” he told Meryman. The little lumps she left tumbled downhill and stopped in the patch of spring beauties.’
Well, there you go, America.
A discussion of ‘Christina’s World,’ a well-known work of his does more justice than this brief post.
Guilt and shame are the primary teaching tools of the old religion and the new, woke religion. If you don’t care, no one can make you care. This leaves many sociopaths with competitive advantage. For the rest of us, being an asshole to the ones you love and with whom you deal isn’t a laudable goal. As much as this is true, decent people have to strike a balance. Sometimes, when you think you have the truth, you must speak that truth, even to loved ones and even when it hurts.
You also need to hear the truth. This hurts, too. It’s really one of the only ways to make your life better and deal with the problems you have. Growth isn’t possible without it.
In the public square, I believe it’s necessary to fight against the true-belief of zealots and fools, while doing my best not to become either of these things myself. What truth I might have to tell, should be told. This [often] puts me on the side of religious liberty and tradition in the good old U.S. of A.
Sometimes it puts me on the side of (S)cience and (R)eason.
Such skepticism also recognizes the danger of bad ideas. A lot of people will find the framework of radical resentment to be sufficient in their lives.
Guilt and shame are also how ideologues make headway. This has consequences for all of us:
Below is a poem by Wendell Berry. Berry is chiefly agrarian, anti-technology and pro-environmental in his outlook. He’s also a traditionalist, who believes family and local associations come first.
For Berry, (M)an must return to family, traditional values and to the Earth. Technology corrupts and while business might scale, both create alienation and unrooted individuals.
Of course, a return to (Man) and (N)ature is not an uncommon view amongst poets, especially since the Romantic Poets in England. Around that time, (M)an, instead of God, became one of the highest things around. Serving the poor and dispossessed is the work of those who care about (H)umankind. Oh, how some people care.
One thing Berry seems to be saying: A route to truth lies in overcoming shame.
Do Not Be Ashamed
You will be walking some night in the comfortable dark of your yard and suddenly a great light will shine round about you, and behind you will be a wall you never saw before. It will be clear to you suddenly that you were about to escape, and that you are guilty: you misread the complex instructions, you are not a member, you lost your card or never had one. And you will know that they have been there all along, their eyes on your letters and books, their hands in your pockets, their ears wired to your bed. Though you have done nothing shameful, they will want you to be ashamed. They will want you to kneel and weep and say you should have been like them. And once you say you are ashamed, reading the page they hold out to you, then such light as you have made in your history will leave you. They will no longer need to pursue you. You will pursue them, begging forgiveness, and they will not forgive you. There is no power against them. It is only candor that is aloof from them, only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach. Be ready. When their light has picked you out and their questions are asked, say to them: “I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon will come around you. The heron will rise in his evening flight from the hilltop.
On that note, I am pretty pro-technology and science. While I have no particular quarrel with neuroscience on its own, pop-neuroscience is often a repository for the modern search for legitimate experiences and theories of the Self. In some quarters, this becomes the window-dressing to sell discredited ideologies.
Readers often come for the anti-woke sentiment, and stay for the personal charm and winning personality (kidding). I get complaints that I am too anti-woke. Or that I’m not anti-religious enough. Or that I’m too pro-religious.
A while ago, I wrote about Jeff Koons, and the removal of religious guilt and shame as a central idea in his work. I also frequently write about Marxism and neo-Marxism as relying on both liberation and revolutionary praxis for their survival. Such doctrines get nature and human nature horrifically wrong, but they get enough of both right, it seems.
Robert Hughes wasn’t a big fan of Koons, and looked at him with a skeptical, suspicious eye:
Celebrity, money, art and fame are mixed in a big bowl:
As posted, I think this except highlights the idea of liberating one’s Self from not only guilt and shame, but judgment. Artists and the avant-garde thrive in such space, but so do ideologues and the worst kinds of people, and a lot of what’s bad in people.
Many avant-garde have become avant-huitard.
Jeff Koons’ Made In Heaven blurred the line between art and porn, private experience and public show, innocence (so easily corrupted) and naive, narcissistic indulgence.