E. A. Poe: Philosophy of Composition

Note: Having just posted my poem, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” I thought about explaining why I engaged in such a verse text that was composed with, frankly, a kind of ruthlessness, in the sense that it quite intentionally plays on the expectations of the readers, especially regarding the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s original that those familiar with that play carry with them; but also expectations concerning the specific words and phrasing. (There is, for instance, a sexual joke somewhere in the middle of it; but more important is the play on the repetition of references to ‘lord’ in the aristocratic sense, and ‘Lord’ in the religious sense.) (It was also important to me to end the poem with a line borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s libretto for “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was the background influence to the poem, and to have this line evoke the problem of memory, which is clearly one of the sub-textual themes of Shakespeare’s play.)

Well, I could go on with such a discussion for quite a while. Instead, I’ll let a better poet than I raise the larger issues underlining these. In the following essay, Edgar Allen Poe delivers a most cold-blooded explanation of the writing of one of the most beloved poems in the American canon (“The Raven”*). I remember, as an English student, professors trying to wave this essay away, or explaining it as a post-hoc apologia. Nothing could be further from the truth – read it for yourself. Poe knew exactly what he was doing – and anyone aspiring to write good poetry should.




Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says- “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin- and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea- but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis- or one is suggested by an incident of the day- or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view- for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest- I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would- that is to say, who could- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say- but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view- at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable- at the cautious selections and rejections- at the painful erasures and interpolations- in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select ‘The Raven’ as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance- or say the necessity- which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art- the limit of a single sitting- and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit- in other words, to the excitement or elevation-again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect- this, with one proviso- that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem- a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration- the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart- upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes- that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation- and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem- some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects- or more properly points, in the theatrical sense- I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone- both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity- of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain- the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being- I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object- supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself- “Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious- “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query- that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer- that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning- at the end where all works of art should begin- for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven- and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields- but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber- in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished- this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird- and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage- it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird- the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic- approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible- is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he- not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:-

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door-
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness- this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.

From this epoch the lover no longer jests- no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader- to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement- which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the denouement proper- with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world- the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable- of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams- the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”- a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required- first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness- some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning- it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme- which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem- their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line-

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical- but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore.

* Poe: The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Winner’s Hamlet: complete play in 5 acts

The Tragedy of
Prince of Denmark

By E. John Winner


Long live the king!

– speak, speak! I charge thee speak!

‘Tis strange.

If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
‘Tis here!
‘Tis here!
‘Tis gone!


My dread lord,

If it be

My lord, the king your father.

The king? my father?

Arm’d, my lord.

He hath importuned me with love
“I am thy father’s spirit,
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Hamlet, remember me.”
– Remember thee!
-Remember thee!

Within –
Lord Hamlet –


How is’t, my noble lord?

Mad for thy love?

How does my good Lord Hamlet?

– Words, words, words.

Fare you well, my lord.

– friend!

What speech, my lord?

Come, sirs.

– O, my dear lord –



Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.
‘Tis brief, my lord.

Dost thou hear?
The king rises.

Hamlet in madness hath
Polonious slain.

Thy loving father, Hamlet.

King Claudius!
The rabble call him lord,
O thou vile king.
Speak, man.

I should be greeted,
if not from Lord Hamlet.




Ay, my lord;


For no man, by the Lord.

Why? This?

E’en so;

Hamlet the Dane. – Remember it, my lord?

Thou pray’st not well.

Was’t Hamlet wrong’d?
Never Hamlet.

King Claudius:
Carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

It is here, Hamlet, thou art slain.

King Claudius dies.



Hamlet: If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,

When this you see, remember me.

the business and the passion – music and capitalism


I am linking to a lecture at Youtube; if it doesn’t play for some reason, here is the URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2YU1k8Nmms

Presented on BBC Four as the John Peel lecture of that year (2014), this is indeed a lecture – yes, a lecture – by Iggy Pop – the Igster, America’s most wayward wayward son, the man known to toss himself on broken glass when in the throes of performing, former front-man for punk precursors The Stooges, and occasional colleague of the late David Bowie.

It’s a strange, yet in many ways fascinating lecture.  Written in the voice of an elder musician of considerable experience, offering advice to young aspiring rock stars, the lecture also presents a critique of the music industry as capitalist system, and suggestions for surviving that; but also an engagingly ambivalent discussion of the question of piracy in the digital era.

Basically, Iggy is against piracy on general principles, yet also defends working people trying to listen to music without paying for it, in an era of spiraling consumer costs.  This ambivalence arises from a preliminary discussion about the nature of music as a “feeling thing,” an emotional commitment transcendent of monetary concerns.  That’s an odd remark from any professional entertainer these days, but especially from a ‘shock rocker’ who has devoted a life-time to transgressing accepted social norms.  Yet it is wholly believable.

There are two interesting moments, early on, when Iggy comes close to sobbing.  The first is when he remembers performers he had befriended, the Ramones – all of whom were dead by the time of this lecture.  The second is when he remarks on the kind of America that young people in the ’60s were hoping would follow the presidency of John F. Kennedy – which hopes seemed dashed by Kennedy’s assassination.  (The evidence is that this hope was entirely in vain to begin with, but never mind; this is how Iggy remembers it.)

Iggy speaks very personally (and personably), without ever losing the authority of someone who has an expertise born of experience – this is a lecture (or at least a presentation, if you will), not a confessional.  Not disappointing those of us who have followed his career over the years, he voices no regrets.  What is there to regret?  He made the music he wanted to, took his chances, lived with the consequences, and survived.  In the music industry as it has existed since the late ’60s, that’s the nearest one gets to heroism.

Over all this lecture is remarkably heart-felt, articulate, witty and insightful.  It really shines a light on the darker recesses of a music industry that most people take for granted, while allowing another light shine from within, of those who just want to make music because they love it and have something to say.


I’ve removed a note I included here off-topic,  commenting on recent events in Oregon, as I realized it distracted from the lecture posted here.  But I may post such commentary separately later.


Problems in current cultural changes

‘End-of-civilization’ theories always interest me, because they mark a recognition that a culture is in the midst of profound changes.

At the suggestion at the blog, Plato’s Footnote, I read an article by Mark Judge, in review of a book by Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘Star Wars’ and the End of Culture ( http://acculturated.com/stars-wars-culture/ ), which complains that the current infatuation with spectacular movies, threatens our ability to value the cultural artifacts of the past.

I have no interest in Star Wars *. So as to Judge/Vargas Llosa – well, we’ve been hearing similar critiques for more than a century – and surprisingly, taken on their own terms, they are all true. However they all share similar problems. First, their definition of ‘culture’ is obviously very narrow and class-dependent. It is true that the culture of the Bourgeoisie and of the Aristocracy that preceded them is intellectually more stimulating and more complex, and emotionally more enticing and more rewarding than the culture Modernity produced for the person on the street. But accessing that ‘higher’ culture requires education, patience, and desire for the good it provides. The greater number of people simply don’t have time for this – but they have cultural needs for stimulation and satisfaction that cannot be denied. One might criticize the avaricious nature of those who cater to those needs, or the cynicism implicit in many of their products. But it is narrow minded to claim that no one should do anything to cater to those needs.

This opens out into another problem with end-of-civilization theorizing. Despite that such theories are arguments concerning history, their narrow understanding of culture leads to a impoverished, blinkered view of how history, especially cultural history, unravels. for one thing, cultural artifacts are very dependent on the technology used to produce them -Joyce’s Ulysses, as cultural artifact, is more dependent on the printing press than on Joyce’s pen. This also means that certain artifacts can become outdated, or even disappear, as technology changes. Collectors, scholars, and museums do what they can to use current technology to preserve artifacts left over from previous technologies – but they cannot recapture the cultural gestalts that gave originally gave these artifacts meaning. We can certainly read War and Peace on Kindle, perhaps even in Russian; but while the text still resonates for those with the proper education, we have only a general sense of its impact in Russia when first published. I’ll try to explain this in terms of an art I have been interested in since a kid.

I have always loved films and was long fascinated with film history. This has led me to confront some difficult problems. First, the physical medium is actually quite fragile. One can find lists of ‘lost films’ on the internet, but these lists are actually incomplete, because they depend on traceable documentation that is itself incomplete.

Second, films rely heavily on the set of conventions expected from them, and thus on the cultural codes surrounding them, because, unlike literature, they cannot be re-imagined by the audience. A studio could produce a ‘remake’ of Chaplin’s Gold Rush, but this would not really be a remake, but a variant re-telling of the same story. (And yes, that means there is no such thing as a ‘remake,’ that word is a used as a publicity ploy.)

Because of this, in order to learn film history, one has to develop a considerable tolerance for allowing cultural codes of the past, even those no longer interesting, or even offensive. The most notorious example of this, controversial even when released, is Birth of a Nation. For me, the realization of the full implication of this came while watching A Bill of Divorcement, the drama of which depends partly on the decision by Katherine Hepburn’s character, not to marry, based on then contemporary eugenics theories (due to her father, she has ‘bad genes’ and must avoid reproduction!). Recognizing the artificial nonsense of this premise made me see the whole film in a different way. I realized the camerawork was static, the dialog stilted, the characters over-drawn, and much of the acting overdone – all of which were quite acceptable conventions for audiences in 1932.

Now, one can say that these are simply criticisms of films of any era, even one’s own. But what this meant to me was that I was losing the capacity for suspending such critical judgment for the sake of losing myself enjoyably in films from the past. Shortly after, a whole host of silent-era and early sound-era films became unwatchable for me. I still cherish a handful, that can still be regarded as well made, with characters we still relate to – especially comedies. But a lot of films I had previously enjoyed have become tiresome efforts to get through cultural icons I could no longer enjoy, for which I no longer have time.

I do think they have value; film history is important, especially for those who would understand the changes that have produced the movie conventions of our own day. But I have come to understand the lack of interest that young people have for films of the past. It’s not just the absence of color or of spoken dialog or of CGI. The old films belong to cultures they do not inhabit.

So this is understandable, and a trend not worth bemoaning. It’s simply in the nature of culture change over generations, and in the nature of us to change with it.

But there is a trend I would like to complain of here – the loss of articulation. In a culture that is healthy – that is, interesting, involving, participatory – cultural artifacts are not simply produced to be ‘consumed’ – that is, sat through uncomplainingly, experienced without challenge, absorbed without question. In a healthy culture, people living in it participate in cultural production by developing a means of articulating what there is in their culture that they like or do not like; of discerning and discriminating between levels of value and differences in kinds and qualities of satisfaction. This is the origin of the language of criticism and review, of discussions of aesthetic taste, and of the agreement in a given culture concerning which artifacts are to be most valued, disseminated, and preserved.

But what I hear and read from young people today, indicates a loss of this necessary articulation. The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation. ‘Awesome!’ – ‘epic!’ – ‘too many feels!’ Young people seem less and less able to articulate their responses to their cultural enjoyments. If so, they are losing the ability to participate in the production of these enjoyments; they become as sheep feeding at the trough of slop poured to them by greedy entrepreneurs with no sense of artistic integrity, and no interest in quality, since all they need to do is tweak the right nerves in their audiences to free them of their wealth.

That, I think, is the real problem here: not the “end of culture,” but the transformation of contemporary culture into a market of inarticulate consumers and mean-spirited producers. That doesn’t mean culture ‘ends,’ but it does mean that young people will be living with the culture they have without knowing the kinds of enjoyment, the stimulations and satisfactions, of full participatory co-production and articulation. They can get as much ‘wow!’ as they can afford (they’ll always have to pay), but they won’t know what it means to belong to a culture they helped produce.
* A side-bar remark on The Force Awakens – its phenomenal success may prove an utter disaster for Hollywood in the long run. Studios will now be competing to produce ‘blockbuster’ films costing literally a billion dollars each, and will be expecting two billion in return for each investment – the market is not really rich enough for that. (Perhaps that will lead to a proliferation of more interesting modestly-budgeted films that are not so effects laden – but I doubt it.)

The failure of analysis in aesthetic experience

Aestheticians (or some of them) have long sought to find grounds for claiming, “there must be reasons we say ‘X’ is an aesthetic object;’ but they come across reading as if saying, ‘there must be some reasoning a critic can use to convince us that “X” is an aesthetic object,’ which is a different question; in either case they have failed. (Logically, but not necessarily rhetorically; indeed the art of aesthetic criticism lies in marshaling a certain kind of objective language to both justify subjective aesthetic judgment, and persuade the audience to the correctness of that judgment – the success of this in effect objectifying the judgment for the audience community.)

This is really not about whether there are such things as ‘aesthetic objects’ exist independent of our judgment of such (what could that even mean?), but about how we talk about them, and whether there is any logical necessity in talking about them in a given way. Anyone who loves the arts wants to say ‘yes,’ but the harsh reality is that language is a social phenomenon; it doesn’t float above us waiting to validate our experiences; and aesthetics is the field that makes this most obvious.

Taste is a matter of inculcation, training, and experience. And not even everyone sharing the same inculcation, training, and experience, will entirely agree on selected objects.

Consequently, although there was some efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, to find a way to transform aesthetics into a science, these failed miserably. They dominated the teaching of art and literature for a time; but eventually most people interested in art and literature simply stopped bothering with them. (‘Monroe Beardsley – who cares?’ The co-author, with W.K. Wimsatt, of “The Affective Fallacy” – arguing, in part, that the value of a poem should not depend on the emotions we read into it – was simply wrong-headed. The affective is not a fallacy, it is the very reason we come to literature in the first place.)

The notion that art is a cultural monument that we must all bow down to, in fact triggered an aggressively negative response in the ’60s, part of the “Cultural Revolution” that tossed all such notions – even some good ones – into the trash can. We largely recovered by tacit agreement that differing aesthetic values would obtain in different social factions – effectively different cultures (or ‘sub-cultures,’ although this term is illegitimate, since it presumes a mainstream culture that, in America, is really an illusion). So now, no one tries to impose the aesthetics of the museum on the those who prefer illustrated novels.

There is no ground for saying of a poem, or painting, or song, that it is ‘lovely.’ We call it such because we have been raised in a certain way, have had certain experiences (shared with others), and so attune ourselves to certain other experiences. The objectivity of art is not a matter of what’s in the object, but in the shared values of a given community.

Recently, The Electric Agora ( http://theelectricagora.com/ – where these thoughts originated as commentary), I had cause to read Frank Sibley’s criticism of what might be called ‘logical aestheticism’ – http://rci.rutgers.edu/~tripmcc/phil/poa/sidley-aestheticconcepts-controversy.pdf – which includes several critical responses to Sibley’s article. I won’t go far into Sibley’s argument; basically, his thesis is that the language we use to discuss aesthetic experiences is neither quantifiable nor conditional, in a manner that we can justify them analytically. They are, instead, results of education and experienced taste. The expert in an art is not the one who has thought rationally about it, but the one who has been immersed in it.

In Peter Kivy’s response to Sibley, attempting to redefine the problem in terms of aspect perspective, (which, if successful, would provide a means of including both rational analysis and Sibley’s theory of taste), I noted this passage:

“We are asked to perceive the melodic line of “Der greise Kopf” (“The Grey Head”) as a line drawing – the silhouette of a man’s head encrusted with snow and ice. How might I bring someone to hear the song as the outline of a face? As in the case of the duck-rabbit, my strategy would be to pick out some crucial feature or features that can be perceived in an appropriate way. I might say, for example: “Notice how the melodic line of the piano introduction climbs, pauses, as if to demarcate the nose and mouth, climbs again, to the brow as it were, and then descends in one long unbroken gesture that outlines the back of the head.” We do not stand mute before an instance of aesthetic aspect-perceiving; we are prepared to point out the features that are involved in perceiving one aspect or another.”

I was going to critique Kivy here; but on re-reading, I realized he was not writing as assertorically as I first read him. Nonetheless, the quoted passage will do to surface the problem here.

This is exactly the sort of thing an academic critic would say. The problem is, one has to already have a sense that “Der greise Kopf” is music worthy of listening to, to be persuaded by the argument. What could such a critic say to someone who simply tossed it off as ‘just so much noise to me’? Worse yet, what could be said to someone with an education similar to the critic who shrugged and said, ‘well, I really don’t like that piece, my taste leans towards jazz’? That’s worse, because the boundaries of the debate remain aesthetic, but there are no grounds by which the debate can be adjudicated. One says ‘potAYto,’ one says ‘poAHto’ – let’s call the whole thing off.

And, of course, then there’s the educated and experienced listener who simply accepts a different culture, with different cultural norms.

So I also want to quote two of my favorite musicologists * here, in order to indicate how important cultural context and experience really are to this issue, which classical aestheticians tend to miss (or, revealing a class bias, dismiss):

“Just let me hear some of that
Rock And Roll Music,
Any old way you choose it;
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music,
If you want to dance with me.”
– Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Music

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”
Bob Marley, Trenchtown Rock

We can certainly raise ethical objections to the lyrics of certain songs (those that advocate rape or violence, for instance), but I don’t see how we can raise any objections to the music one is culturally prepared to listen to. What would we say – ‘this is not beautiful’? ‘this is not music’? We have heard such arguments in public discourse – and we have seen that they fall on deaf ears. The aesthetic begins in the social modification of primal desires and visceral responses; articulate judgment follows as explanation. But this is not the ‘thing in itself.’ This ‘thing’ is a feeling, not a ‘thought.’

* Every successful musician (barring clever advertising hype) is a intuitive ‘musicologist’ – one expert in musical expression and its social reception – almost by definition; they would not be successful otherwise. The point hereis, in what culture will they’re expertise apply? The aesthetic is always culturally bound. No ‘logical analysis’ or neuroscience will ever effectively get around that.

Arts, literature, history – and the good life

Wrapping up – for now – recent comments on the relation between the humanities, philosophy, and the academy, let’s consider putting an end to the hope of a special sensitivity to the arts and literature, and consider rather if we should be thinking along broader social lines.

I’ve never doubted that many academic professionals believe in what they do; one of my two best friends is such. But there are some, and I’ve met too many of them, who, faced with the disappointment over the failure of realizing their motivating dreams in the academy, simply see it as a job (and my other best friend is such).

But don’t miss my previous comments’ main points: The universities produce too many researchers; the stronger claim for public support would emphasize teaching and learning as inherent goods; this claim is often set aside in favor of attracting research funding. I see that as a problem.

We have to take these issues outside the university. Otherwise we are chasing our tails around institutional politics that cannot be resolved institutionally (although they will be decided legislatively in due course). The university is not what needs preservation, but the cultural goods it was established to care for and maintain.

This cannot be done by arguing for some wonderful collection of eternal truths and values that we all should share. We never have shared these values, universally, and we never will – now less so than in any time in our history.

I doubt any love Shakespeare and Aristotle much more than I do. And I understand the sense of meeting great minds through the artifacts of the past – this is exactly why I consider myself so fortunate, coming from the working poor but at last receiving an advanced education.

But the fact remains that a writer or artist composes for a particular audience. It oft takes considerable hermeneutic interpretive skills to draw out just what older texts mean. (That is one of the arts of research we learn in universities.) And there are many truths that are only truths for a given time and a given culture.

Shakespeare has Hamlet remark that foreigners think of the Danish aristocrats as drunkards because of their love of carousing. This remark was probably intended as a sly dig at the Elizabethan court – the Queen herself was known as rather fond of ale. Reading it this way, I’ve always found the remark amusing. But what is the eternal truth here? The wealthy and powerful should practice moderation? Don’t drink heavily in front of foreigners? Do we really seek such banalities from Shakespeare? But the banalities are there, coated in wonderful Elizabethan English, that most people can no longer read or understand.

Is art an end-in -itself? (And one has to get all German Romantic, Kant/Hegel/Schopenhauer, to get there.) Or is it just what people do, because they are people – human beings – and it is just inevitable to our species?

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois wrote:

““I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

There is no resolution to the means-ends dilemma – every end can be argued to be a means. If DuBois wishes to “dwell above the veil,” the literature of which he writes is a means to that end; and why would he want to “dwell above the veil?” Answering that question reveals the end that dwelling above the veil is a means toward achieving. And so on.

Literature cannot be defended with the claim that somehow it stands as an end to itself that naturally enriches human experience; there’s too much literature that simply does not do this, and, on close examination, cannot. The Satyricon – the punk rock of literature, so to say – is a story of two gay lovers competing over a beautiful boy. It mocks everything the Romans believed in, including their cultural dependence on the poetry they claimed (as conquest booty) from Greece. It’s frequently hilarious, and, one might say, viciously insightful.

Is it art? is it “Literature”? There can be no doubt that, within its idiom, it is exquisitely executed. Where is the eternal truth in it? Whenever I read it, I do not ask that question – it is what it is, with all its pornographic details, its attacks on ‘literature’ professors, its reveling in the excess and self-indulgence in an empire already too old and too corrupt for its own good.

So I suppose that’s what it ‘teaches’ us. But that was Rome; and that was then.

The notion that great art will somehow make our lived experience somehow ‘sacred,’ is simply false; we might feel that in response to it, but the art itself does not do this. Truly great art will simply leave everything as it is, and let the audience sort it out.

So the notion that art and literature reveal ‘eternal truths’ to us is readily dispelled. Defending inquiry into the arts of the past requires a different approach.

I suggest such a different tact – one that has concerned me for some time: namely that in America, having accomplished vast amounts of wealth and power, never previously dreamt, we have virtually no ongoing public discussion of what might constitute ‘the good life;’ a discussion the Athenians were very good at; and which is implicit in a great many religiously informed societies (albeit decided in advance by ‘sacred text’); but it only gets indirectly raised, as hint, in commercials (as instant gratification of sensual desires – most of which are generated by advertisers themselves), and in arts critical of commercial culture (usually suggesting that the solution is to be found in some sort of ‘spirituality,’ never specified; or, ironically, in some sort of ‘alternative’ hedonism – drugs rather than alcohol, for instance). But what would really constitute a ‘good life’ – enjoyable but not excessive, conditioned not by perceived desires but by some sense of achievement and fulfilled responsibility – remains marginalized and even deprecated, in both mainstream and alternative media. Why not? Such a discussion would threaten the very fabric of consumer-targeted investment capital.

But while commercial culture and it’s ‘anti-establishment’ mirrors provide kinds of life, an existential living, they remain somehow unsatisfactory. And it has been my experience, although widely denied, that Americans, despite wealth and power, remain the most unhappy people in history. Others suffer greater physical suffering, of course, but none experience angst, dissatisfaction, frustration, hopelessness, depression, disappointment, more deeply than we (excluding the highly successful socio-paths in business and politics, of course). Our power and our wealth should assure us of peace and leisure, achievement and enjoyment. Instead, all we get are worries, insecurities, raw fear – and stupid television.

One would assume the inheritors of Western Civilization could do better. And that should be the discussion to engage in. But how to raise a sustainable open discussion on this issue remains unclear; however, every effort is certainly welcome

Class and contemplation

I posted my comment on viewing the whole matter of the American academy and the humanities from a broadly historical perspective, because my own responses to the problems of the academy have been somewhat mitigated over the years by just such historical considerations. The point of my comments was that the place of the humanities in the university is both a product of history, and at play in historical trends beyond itself that any argument – sound or otherwise – cannot properly address or effect. That’s no consolation, but does provide a moment to ask where in this stream we are really swimming.

Throughout my education, from 2nd grade to doctorate, I was recurrently reminded by teachers, administrators and peers, that, coming from the working poor, I was extremely fortunate to have access to learning that really wasn’t intended for those of my background. * Indeed, I was. 200 years ago, I probably would never have learned to read; 500 years ago, I would not have been allowed to learn to read. The books of the tradition before the 19th century were not written for my eyes, the music before then was not composed for my ears. The notion that art and literature has some universal value that we all have a right to, is historically easy to falsify. (Which of course is not to say that I dismiss pre-Modern arts and literature, or reject their availability, to the contrary: I am quite sincere in saying I consider myself lucky to have been born in this era, when such were made available to those of my class.) Nonetheless, I remain suspicious of claims that some necessary human truth is delivered us through the traditional arts (beyond the undeniable truth that people who can paint or write or compose, etc., will do so when they can).

But while there is a great deal of class-based ramblings in Western philosophy, there is very little of it in Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhism has a surprising track record of sages who came from humble origins. Becoming a Buddhist, I fully realized the truth of Aristotle’s claim that the richest life would be that of contemplation. Aristotle’s strongest claim for this was in the Politics, wherein Aristotle surmises that governmental structures inevitably grow corrupt, and that participation in politics inevitably corrupts individuals. The more we participate, the more complicit we become. Perhaps the most honest and virtuous choice we can make is simply opting out of the fabric of a society that can not live up to the best elements of its ideology, and refuses to change in order to do so.

Buddhism also insists on engagement with others to alleviate suffering. But for me, philosophy – east and west – has provided the richest experiences of my life. I don’t believe this can be taught – but it can be learned. Perhaps the best argument for the humanities is that they provide opportunities for learning. That may not sell many student loans, but it may persuade some young people to rethink what they expect from a college education.


  • Let no one misunderstand, despite the carefully worded main text here, and risking the banality of cultural criticism: I was not supposed to have earned a doctorate, I was not supposed to have thought deeply on Shakespeare, or Kant, etc.  And I was told that, by implication on many occasions, but explicitly on some.  The notion that the arts and literature ‘belong to the masses’ is a myth, and every historical record demonstrates it.   I was fortunate to get to it at all – but not without scars.

Ideology and the humanities through history

In America, there is always a crisis in the humanities at the level of the university – or at least since the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, when it was clear that the wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe could not be stifled through quotas imposed by worried conservatives in Congress.  These immigrants had cultures of their own, many quite rich in heritage, and quite old, so debates began to arise concerning what cultural legacy would actually be taught to their children, should they be smart enough, and fortunate enough, to at last arrive for entry at university doors.

Through-out most of my life – which saw the rise of Post-Modernism,  Deconstruction, Reaganism – there seems to have been one crisis after another.  Whenever someone cries ‘Crisis!’ I look at a calender: if it’s October, there must be a crisis.

My tongue is in cheek, because I know that the place of the humanities in education remains a battleground for opposing political parties, so the crisis is real enough.  But I haven’t survived this long – with my love of the humanities intact – without learning to view such crises from as broad a perspective as possible.

First, let’s remember that, despite justifications or lack thereof, we are only going to see incremental change in most universities and colleges. The academy is entrenched and the economic structure supporting it may wither slowly away, but is unlikely to be dismantled. In my life, the most serious change in the academy came about during the Reagan era, but this only institutionalized a long-standing conservative belief that the humanities belonged to the wealthy and education for the masses need be reduced to training. The business model the Reaganites introduced didn’t succeed at total transformation, because the Academy is a very peculiar business – i.e., e.g., who is the real consumer? What is being produced? Answers to basic market-theory questions are not readily forthcoming in the academic arena.

Getting Neo-Marxian for a moment, let’s consider the historic origins of the humanities as field of instruction. The 18th century saw the rise of the bourgeoisie as the dominant social class. This rise was fairly rapid, and by the mid 19th century the bourgeoisie found themselves with two unexpected issues to deal with: excess wealth (wealth not needed for commercial re-investment), and leisure time. Their religious inheritance told them that the excess wealth should go into charity and that they should spend their free time reading the Bible or praying – but come on, who really gets rich to become a saint? So they instead chose to inherit not only the wealth and power of the aristocracy, but it’s culture. Not its religion, but its arts and literature. Thus the humanities were born. Suddenly artifacts of ‘Truth,’ ‘Beauty,’ ‘Pleasure,’ and ‘Universal Meaning’ were to be made available to all those who could afford them.

By the 20th century, it was becoming clear that industrialization would soon allow at least a broad segment of the working class some political power, and, of course, leisure time. So it became necessary to inculcate their children into the same cultural inheritance, to insure continuity and social control. Thus the humanities developed into an educational imperative – literally mandatory in the secondary schools.

It should be noted that such cultural mandates are both such necessary and inevitable. Any large, complex, developed culture needs ideological indoctrination to maintain social stability. It doesn’t matter whether we believe or even understand the ideology as a whole (thus hypocrisy is rather built into such a system). What matters is having a shared set of signifiers that can be used to explain social behavior. Such will change over time, both in presentation and interpretation. It may be that the humanities, as such a set of signifiers, have outlived their usefulness. But social/economic inertia assures their place in the academy for the time being.

I was born to a single mom who worked as a nurse. A century earlier, it is unlikely that I should even be taught to read. In this century, however, I was not only taught to read, but in my youth began reading voraciously, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Although I remained largely in the educational system provided by the state, I consider myself something of an auto-didact, who used the system to direct me to sources, rather than following the system’s directives toward ‘useful’ interests – which ultimately led to my existence as a marginal outsider who finally found it useful to leave the system altogether.

My doctorate is in English, and one of the things I learned (as something of an outsider), was that there was pretty much nothing more to say about the ‘Canon’ of Western literature as it then existed (it has been considerably expanded since). There really is just so much that can be written in criticism of a Shakespearean sonnet or a novel by Joyce, and by the ’80s such had already been written. One reason for the popularity of Deconstruction that decade was that it promised to generate new criticism of old texts through reversal of values of previous critical readings. This sounds nefarious, and conservatives argued it was, but that misses the point – which was that Deconstruction offered a means to produce journal publications all important to academic careers.

In the wake of considering this issue, and in surveying the academy as a whole, what I realized is that the academy itself, not just any one field, has a profound problem with justification, despite all the money poured into it by both public and private resources: No field of research needs the huge numbers of researchers the academy produces. Universities produce thousands of humanities scholars, scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, etc, than are actually needed. Many of these leave the university system, as I did, but many thousands remain in the academy where – as researchers – they do little more than dot some older scholar’s ‘i,’ or provide a comma to some esoteric formula – and of course, collect a check. (The amount of cynicism one finds among some academics is distressing to anyone who truly values learning.) This situation has actually been known for some decades, and the implication is clear, namely that to remain socially useful, the academy needs to make a claim, not on the value of research, but on the importance of its teaching. But this it always does half-heartedly, because, frankly, that’s not where the money is, and the system is really not set up to reward good teachers. So university departments survive on the justification they can make, not to the society they presume to educate, but to the agencies providing them grants and donations.

We should note that the social pressure on the academy, to provide any justification, is actually part of the ideological usefulness of the academy. It’s grounded in economics, and thus re-enforces a faith in marketing, and assurances that even knowledge is a commodity to be produced and sold. The conflicts within the academy, and any presumed crisis such conflict produces, merely re-assure us that the only ideological value we all share is that of capitalism.

Really stupid television in review

I was fishing through Youtube, looking for episodes of The Flash, after reading a positive review of the show (and the Flash was my favorite DC Comics superhero in the ’60s), and instead came up with the complete season of Flash Forward. Reading the initial premise, I was intrigued enough to watch the second episode all the way through. No point starting with Episode One, since that would simply be set-up, with ‘disaster movie’ footage of people passing out, and waking up wonder ‘wha’ happened?’ – and I already had serious questions about the logic of the premise, so I just wanted to see if they could make sense of it in actual practice. They didn’t; and it was clear that they weren’t going to try. Rather, they had set up the established premise merely to slap several well-worn television genres together – police procedural, hospital drama, soap-opera involving a dissolving relationship, angst-drama about: ‘what is this all about if I’m going to be dead tomorrow?’ That sort of thing. But I still wondered if they could make any real, tangible sense of it all, so I skipped to the last episode, with its pseudo-touching romances, and its spectacular action sequence end-pieces, and decided that, no, they hadn’t made sense of any of it. So, having decided to write my critique of it, I began fast-forwarding through the series as a whole.

There’s a particular art to fast-forwarding through a television series, but anyone who has watched a lot of television can do it with ease – and in fact, most people do, with one show or another. That’s because the pacing and temporal structure of a television show is determined by its length and its commercial interruptions, and remains the same show-to-show within larger genre categories – for instance, hour-long dramas (all types) vs. half-hour comedies. It’s actually very easy to determine when in a dramatic episode the conflict will need to be initiated, when dramatic confrontation occurs, when reveals will at last appear.

My favorite instance of this, because it was a series I actually liked (being a fan of Peter Falk), is the series of television movies about police detective Columbo. Over some 30 years, the Columbo series developed two temporal structures, one broadcast as an hour-and-a-half (actually 73 minutes minus commercials), the other as two hours (95 minutes without commercials). The formula for each structure was rock solid and almost never varied. The episode would open with a soap-opera premise (cheating spouse, greedy spouse, professional about to be revealed as fraud or criminal, etc.) that would lead one character to murder another in the manner of a ‘perfect crime’ brilliantly covered up. Then enter Columbo, who would notice a tiny bit of evidence at the crime scene that would lead him to begin his investigation. This would largely involve pestering the witnesses (including the suspect) with questions about the logic of the apparent crime, and by about the three-quarter mark, Columbo would be openly pursing the suspect, who would try to bring some pressure to bear to stop the investigation, to which Columbo would respond by setting a trap leading to the final reveal of the murderer’s identity.

I admit that, while I quite like Falk as Columbo, I never had any interest in the soap-operatic drama leading to the murder. So I soon figured out that, in the 73 minute episodes, I could skip to about the 15 minute mark, and in the 95 minute episodes, I could skip to around 20-25 minutes, and there would be Lt. Columbo walking through the door into the crime scene. I couldn’t quite set my clock to it, but the temporal range of Columbo’s appearance in any story was entirely predictable.

Time is the key to the nature of television, from sit-com to news programming, from decisions by broadcasting production staff to decisions by viewers. Operating 24/7 since the mid-seventies, and with now something like 200 broadcast and cable channels so operating, more than 33000 hours of television are available for viewing every week. This massive temporal domain has to be divided into discreet segments – the stories, the news reports, the sales pitches and sermonettes, the games, the song-and-dance variety acts, the old movies and old TV show re-runs – which must be further divided by commercial advertisements. The structures generated by these divisions are actually quite limited in their range of possible mutation, and practically every mutation has already been developed. Television is the reduction of time to the utterly predictable and repeatable. Even the occasional shocks we receive from news reports of disasters or special events are somehow replays of past experiences. (How many wars in the Mid-East have we had to follow on the news since 1950? And how many ways can such wars be reported? War is a real tragedy, and one we should respond to with interest; but the TV news reportage of wars has grown quite tiresome, leaving many viewers understandably numb.)

But the real problem here is owned by the viewers themselves. It can be summed up with a single question (and the many responses we can give to it): ‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ In other words, the problem we viewers have is in finding ways of organizing our time around meaningful activities – because, frankly, however entertaining or informing a television show might be, the meaningfulness of the medium itself is in serious doubt, which doubt can never be resolved by reference to individual experiences of individual shows. I enjoyed watching Columbo; but why did I choose to do that rather than, say, write a novel, or attend a concert, volunteer for a community charity project, or simply sit in meditation? We can certainly learn new things watching a television documentary on recent discoveries in biology; but let’s face it, that’s entertainment. If you really want to learn biology, you read books or attend classes; keep abreast of journals, or at least magazines that popularize recent research. The hour-long documentary (43 minutes minus commercials) is the equivalent to the blurb on the back-cover of a book; except, it only takes a minute to read the blurb, whereas the documentary takes up an hour of your life (including the commercials).

‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ The fact is, most television viewers never ask themselves this question. People end up watching really stupid television like the Beverly Hillbillies or Flash Forward, not because it is meaningful, but because they can’t think of anything better to do at the moment. To find meaning in the activity, they develop interest in various characters, get caught up with their problems, feel tensions concerning possible resolutions to those problems, express a sigh of relief when the resolutions appear. So it seems meaningful, it ‘feels’ meaningful, it must be meaningful.

But this makes such viewers sound a little doltish – neither true nor fair. Which is why I mentioned my own watching of Columbo. I always thought the writing of Columbo was a bit clever in a low-brow pop-culture way; but I suspect another writer could present a strong argument that it was also just really stupid television, with a twist to appeal to mystery fans like me. The question can not be escaped by anyone who watches television – and television being omnipresent, watching it becomes almost inevitable to all but the most intently insular.

‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ My guess is that if this question could truly be confronted, we would not be watching television; but I also suspect that the television culture we have developed – which just is the very culture in which we live – would not allow us this.

Television demands we watch it. Because: ‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ – possibly nothing much….

The existential angst of that alternative is too terrible to consider. Fortunately, a new season of Murdoch Mysteries begins tonight on CBC, so there’s 18 weeks of Monday television viewing I can rely on, to distract me from the question, and transmute existential angst into mere anxiety over the problems I know Detective Murdoch will resolve.

Television always settles question concerning television, by letting us watch television.

Really stupid television, episode 2

Previously, on Really Stupid Television: With the Beverly Hillbillies, we saw how the very premise of a television show could be, simply put, stupid, leading to stupidity in every other aspect of the program, and raising questions concerning audience motivation. We’ll try to make this matter more precise discussing another example, a science fiction action thriller that was broadcast on the ABC television network during the 2009-2010 season, Flash Forward.

This discussion will concern what I will refer to as the problem of meta-stupidity in our popular entertainments (although it can show up in more sophisticated arts as well, and can be frequently found in politics and economics). But let me explain.

There are four layers of stupid to be uncovered in the popular arts. Popular reviews or more refined forms of criticism generally deal with three:

Local stupidity: usually revealed in dialogue, pertaining to the experience or inadequacy of a single character, small group of characters, or situation. In one scene from Flash Forward, Agent Noh admits to his fiance Zoey Andata that he has slept with his lesbian colleague Janis Hawks in order to impregnate her because in her flash forward she was pregnant. This is probably among the stupidest excuses for a one night stand one can give to one’s supposed beloved – and it’s not clear why anybody would be stupid enough to have such a one night stand (beyond desperation, which is not Noh’s problem); nor why anyone would be stupid enough to admit such an affair to one’s fiance if an admission was not needed. I suppose this is what passes for ‘responsible sex’ in Hollywood.

Regional stupidity: pertaining to technical misjudgments raising questions concerning the competency of the production crew or the actors, or of the characters in the narrative itself. Inane plot devices are the most glaring example of this: There’s the more local sequence when someone in an apparently empty house, forewarned that danger is lurking, responds to the creaking of a door in the floor above, chooses to climb the stairs, calling out, “is anyone there?” and the inevitable terrorizing that follows. My favorite moment of this in Flash Forward is when the hero, Benford, is interrogating a villain, and the bad guy tells him that, having lived through this encounter in numerous Flash Forwards, he knows that after continued interrogation, Benford will simply lose control and start beating him up, afterwards losing his job and everything he loves. Presumably, Benford is interested in changing the future, so we can easily suppose what he might do to prevent the realization of this prophecy – but this being a stupid television show, we know what really happens next. We could have written it ourselves – in our sleep.

And then there’s the big gaping hole in reasonable expectations: in Flash Forward, we’re supposed to accept that a super-secret organization, with apparently unlimited funds (from sources unknown) could build bizarre relay towers (6 stories high) – to amplify energy generated in a super-collider (huh?) – across the globe, with absolutely no governmental or journalistic suspicions being raised. We used to say, “inquiring minds want to know;” apparently no such existed in the world of Flash Forward until catastrophe happened.

Global stupidity: manifesting in basic problems of plotting in the stories themselves, either in the per-episode narrative, or in the story-arcs linking through the episodes. Critical complaints against Flash Forward have largely surfaced two prime instances of global stupidity: too many characters, and too many side-stories. In one episode, a preacher chats up his flash-forward in religious terms. Nothing much comes of his appearance, and I don’t believe he appears in any later episode. So, why? Because somebody in the production team probably remarked, ‘well, we probably need to address the religious angle at some point; let’s get it done and over with.’ Except that, in a science fiction story, no! you don’t have to address any religious angle! So all you’ve done is fill up time with insufferable twaddle.

Or, again, one story arc looping throughout the show involves a surgeon (Bryce) who (flashforward) sees himself meeting a beautiful Japanese female (Keiko). He becomes obsessed with her, so of course we have to have her back-story as well, and in the last episode, they do finally meet, and, as all too predictably, romance blooms.

Except that Bryce is a vacuous character with no charm; Keiko is charming, but her back-story is implausible and occasionally silly; and the whole story-line reeks of psychopathology. And what does any of it have to do with the search for the cause of the Flash Forward?

But all of this so far has to do with whether the telling of the story is effective – or not. There’s still the question of whether the story should be told at all.

I want to go beyond standard criticisms of stupid dialogue or plot points. What concerns us here is meta-stupidity. This is reference to problems in the very concept of a narrative or dramatic entertainment, or in the assumptions underlying that concept. (The concept is how one briefly describes the plot to reveal its themes, without direct reference to the characters of the story. So: “son avenges father on murderous uncle married to widowed mother,” is a reasonable facsimile of the concept that Shakespeare works through in Hamlet, which also suggests that the thematic of the play concern vengeance, family relationships, and a young man’s struggle to accept his responsibilities.)

We can now turn to the fundamental premise of Flash Forward to consider just how stupid a concept for a fictional story can be.

The purported premise of Flash Forward opens with a catastrophe, presented in a title (read voice-over) that began 20 of its 22 episodes: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” That is, 7 billion people went unconscious, wherever they were (which led to 20 million deaths in the US, according to the show), and when the survivors woke up, they had a memory of events they would experience six months from then. This is not the complete premise, since there is no reference yet to any characters engaged in action, so we’ll flesh the premise out as it unravels in the first two episodes and thus sets the real story (or, rather, stories) into motion: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future. Now only a handful of FBI agents can determine the cause and prevent it from happening again (while their friends and families try to come to terms with how to live with the future they saw).” But to really get the full flavor of this premise, we must remember that this catastrophe was global, so the premise should remark the global response to it; and here it is: “On October 6 (etc.). Now only a handful of FBI agents (etc.). Meanwhile, 7 billion people talk about it sometimes, and go about their daily business, while governments hold committee meetings to decide who’s responsible for it.”

Here’s the mind-numbing stupidity of it: A planetary catastrophe happens (and yet the only deaths mentioned are those in the US, BTW), and there is no emergency response from any government or charitable agency; the international community of scientists engage in no research into possible causes or solutions; there are no riots or mass immigrations; no new political or religious movements are engendered; psychotic breaks are limited to those who can be pursued by the heroic FBI team. I mean, yeah, there are occasional news casts and a speech by the President, and the head of the CIA suspects the Chinese are involved with it (because “they slept through it” – a stupid claim to make about 1 billion Chinese, that they could both terrorize the world and sleep through it all, but there we go)…. But really, it all comes down to that team of FBI agents.

Well, almost. Because as the series goes on, the premise begins accumulating clutter: Although the scientific community makes little appearance in the series, there are two scientists who are revealed to have invented the gadgets that may have caused the event, and one of them just happens to be in for a possible romantic relationship with the wife of the FBI agent who concerns us most, and the other just happens to be involved with the secret organization that did cause the event; which organization happens to have two FBI agents on its payroll (albeit one’s a double agent), and happens to have connections with a gang of terrorists, not to mention another gang of terrorists in Afghanistan that may be covertly funded by the US…. And anyway, a lot of people get shot, and things explode, and there are sex scenes, and endangered children, and –

(Oh, let me stop there, because I just have to remark, as side-bar, that the two starring children in the series are the most annoying child characters, played by the most annoying child actors, that I have ever had to suffer with in order to follow a story.)

Now, it sounds as if I’ve wandered into the terrain of the regional or global stupidity of this series, but that’s the problem I’m trying to surface: The basic premise is not only stupid, it is thin, very thin. For instance, it doesn’t suggest any thematic of the plot; it could never sustain a weekly television program for more than, say, three episodes. (A similarly thin premise – even with similar added on subplots – could not even sustain the 3 hour TV movie Supernova from 2005 – truly a disaster of a movie.) So what the writers have done is to layer concept over concept in order to generate supposed ‘dramatic moments’ even when these do not add up to any real drama. This is one reason why so many characters, irrelevant to the main narrative, can drift in for an episode or two and then disappear. Example: One added-in concept is: “FBI agent lives with lesbian lover but desperately wants a child.” This gives us a few scenes with the lover, who disappears after a couple episodes. Meanwhile the agent herself is used to flesh out another add-in: “fatalistic FBI agent has affair with lesbian colleague, because he believes he will die soon, and his fiancé is not around” (his fiancé being a lawyer who just happens to represent the suspected terrorists).

Do we see what’s happening here? The show-runners, confronted with the evident weakness of the original concept, rather than finding ways to flesh it out in a manner at least suggestive of reality, have layered it over with concept after concept, all equally unbelievable (because dependent on Hollywood stereotypes), all paper thin (because never fully realized), and all equally stupid.

Finally, one must really comment on the science here, since this becomes another layer of concept by the series’ mid-point. A super-collider supposedly generates enough energy to send 7 billion consciousnesses into the future and bring them back. This assumes, not only that super-colliders do anything  like this (they don’t), but that we have ‘a consciousness’ (which is still debated) – an entity detachable from our bodies, that can be moved temporally by some form of energy, and returned to our bodies whole. This also assumes that the future happens completely deterministically, so that variance is dubious. However, this would moot any possible action by the characters. So by episode seven, it is at last revealed that the future can be changed, when an FBI agent, who knows that he will be responsible for somebody’s death in the future, commits suicide. This is where the theme of the program finally reveals itself. No, it’s not simply an argument for free-will. Rather, by the last two or three episodes, it becomes clear that even if you know the future and can change it, you shouldn’t do that, because of the “balance of energies in the universe” – which balance will realize itself whether we want to or not, anyway. (The person the FBI agent thought would survive once he’s killed himself does herself get killed in a completely unrelated accident.) So the series that didn’t need to address religion (but did so anyway), sneaks ‘spirituality’ in through the back-door: pantheism.  But a particularly muddled, banal, ‘feel-good’ variety of it.

Although there’s much more stupidity to exhume from the corpse of Flash Forward, I’m going to stop here before my mind explodes. In my next post I’ll go into how I was able to survive exposure to this series, and lessons one can learn from such an experience.


More on Flash Forward: