going to mesh a little with Joanna, certainly about concrete poetry
and things of that sort. Im composing these remarks by allowing
the images to determine the narrative or, rather, the exposition
of a few ideas about the relation of verbal media to pictorial
ones. Every slide is, after all, a photograph, even when it is
the exposure of a text. But what the slide will show will not
be an illustration of some point, as much as it will be the problem,
and embodiment of the point, itself.
letters: the letters are recognizable as such, but the orthography
is definitely German, as is the calligraphy that adorns some of
them. These small units--not even words, though I
and a are, in English, words--are visual elements
of a written or printed language, and they exemplify a profound
problem in logic, linguistics and epistemology. We are looking
at the Cartesian quandary, though you may not have thought you
were just looking. You thought you were looking at a few deutchefied
ABCs. These letters, as font makers know, are not innocent
of expression, but grin and grimace. Mostly they make threats.
Take a close look at kobelskraut, done in aggressive,
thorny, barbed type. It is not a word in my dictionary, but I
understand it to mean cabbage head, anyway. Even the
periods have bumps.
sign cannot make up its mind about how it wants to be lettered.
Probably it is two signs brought together by misadventure. So,
what is our problem? In one sense, what we are looking at is an
instance of the word towing and not at the word towing,
itself. For, if we were looking at the word towing,
it might be nearly our last chance, because the paint that has
written the words is peeling and flaking. They would be as endangered
as the cape sable sparrow, the wood stork or the snail kite. These
three words, towing, brake and work,
are, what we call in logic, tokens or instances of the words.
The words themselves belong to the English language type, as arbeit
serves as work, in German. It is the tokens that do
the work of the language. They appear in sentences of all kinds
and disappear, mostly without being warned, as disposable as Kleenex.
It would seem to me that these particular versions needed to be
saved, somehow, because they were sited. They had become site-specific.
Theyre general, since they have both meanings and reference.
Theyre unique tokens of these meanings, as particular as
any person. So I take their picture, and I can multiply the slide.
Their image is no longer site-specific. Its a little like
saving the cape sable sparrow by stuffing it.
endangered fellow, the liquor store that bore this sign on its
door, has gone and taken its liquor with it, leaving out
behind. That is, aus in German. If out
and aus can be said to mean somewhat the same thing,
then there must exist a pure type, the idea that aus
in German and out in English stand for. That pure
type lives outside language, just as its referent, the way out,
does. This way, aus, please.
have always, as artists, been interested in the sound of words,
but only sometimes in their looks. For a Yeats or a Hardy poem
is indifferent to its look, so long as stanza integrity is maintained.
Unlike a painting, a poem has no specific visual existence. Somewhere,
there is a Sailing to Byzantium, indifferent to paper,
ink, or thought choice, but not indifferent to its language. Can
we surmise that there exists a purely conceptual core to Sailing
to Byzantium, that lives outside of language altogether,
and makes possible the poems translation, in any way at
all, into German? Arbeit and work are
symbols for a common universal. Every word is, consequently, capable
of posing the Cartesian conundrum, as Beckett was so happily aware.
Here, wearing away, is a token, a simple, material thing that,
nevertheless, is busy mediating between meaning and referent,
between an idea and an act. Just as the puny pineal gland had
to mediate between mind and matter in Descartes system,
if there was to be any interaction, at all, between them. Or,
if you prefer another philosopher, between a Platonic form and
its miserable, material imitation.
by itself, is one thing. A lot of them together mean snore.
Around not the token but the language type, meanings gather. Expressions
appear and change. This happens despite the fact that z,
by itself, designates nothing whatsoever. Its just a letter.
As soon as we adopt a notation, as soon as we decide how a word
is to be spelled or a letter is to be written, there will be tokens.
These tokens will resemble one another, and around that generalized,
visual scheme, associations will congregate, like crowds to an
accident. We will begin to get personal about them. For instance,
to Wallace Stevens, z depicted a kneeling person looking
over the edge of a cliff into the abyss. If this is not what it
might have called to our minds, we can certainly catch his drift.
Z is, at once, a letter, a noise and an image. Z
has a place in the mouth where its made, and a shape: that
of a fallen n, which it must possess, however personal
a hand that might made it. Zed is last in the alphabet.
Z stands for zeppelin or zebra
in the alphabet books. Zed cannot be innocently said
or naively written.
every language sports a cedilla. In Scratches, the first
volume of Michel Leuris great work, Rules of the Game,
he writes about his early response to words and to the alphabet
which spells them. With its lower appendage, a little pigs
tale or a crank, like the one used by the owner of the store at
the corner of Rue Michelange and Rue de Toie to maneuver the awning
that protected his stall, the curly c appears to be
a perfected instrument, equipped as it is with the cedilla, which
gives it its peculiar character. Rarely do writers respond
to the visual side of their language the way Leuris does. We have
lost our awe of the written word which once brought even proud
people to their knees.
the beckon of the visual qualities of words and letters, then,
various associations assemble, and not all of them are sweet.
Among kids I went to school with, the tipped over q
was considered obscene, and provoked grins we hoped were lewd.
is the k of the Requiem. The notation we decided upon
for k and its alphabetical associates has had two
things happen to it. First, it has been used by one of Gods
scribes to create a sacred book. The words of the Bible, for example,
or the Koran, are not the same as ordinary words. The salt to
which Lots wife was changed is not the salt of the earth.
The logos of Genesis is not even the logos
that Plato knew. Sacred texts cannot be altered and their sentences
bear vital, often hidden, truths. So, these words seem to ask
that special attention be paid to their bodies. Here, the attention
seems lighthearted, even irreverent. Exactly the same thing happens
to words in great poetry. As Rilke observed, No word in
a poem is the same as that word out of it, in the intercourse
of common life. The same can be said for a word in a painting
or a photograph. The context gives to the word, as in the Bible,
an in itself reality, a dignity, an authority that
ordinary words cannot have. Although we indicate, through the
levels of grandeur in our orthography, the level of power that
the author of a text may have, and the public function the text
may be performing. The sacred word, the poems word, has
undergone an ontological transformation. The token undergoes a
change. This change takes place in every art, and photography
is no exception.
what had only a use here at the laundry, the sentiments expressed
has lost that use. The laundry is closed and the message is out
of date, like out was, or brake. Once
we were expected to use these services and heed this message.
The token was to be ignored, so the mind might move in the direction
of its object or its meaning. We are not supposed to contemplate
the message and stroll on, or giggle at the rhyme. Indeed, the
rhyme itself calls attention to the bearer of the message, not
to the advice that its giving. Irrelevant things occupied
my eye when I took this shot: color, texture, rectilinear inclusions,
decay, form, things irrelevant to life. To the degree the token
makes itself attractive, and calls attention to itself, it naturally
fails to disappear into its referent, and fails its message, although
the striking nature of the sign might have drawn a passing eye.
The beautiful and artistically satisfactory sign will sell only
itself. Art always runs counter to communication.
can have three motives not necessarily exclusive. First, the letter
can be designed to connect it with concepts otherwise far from
itself. Second, it can narcissistically concern itself with its
own, standardized, physical form: the shape of a d,
for instance. Or, third, it can be harmoniously related by some
designer to all the other letters of the alphabet, as type fonts
are, and styles of handwriting. Here, Maurice Lumetre has constructed
an anti-calligraphic image, causing various typefaces to challenge
one another, and making the interrelated letters deliberately
stiff, mechanical and coldly geometric.
lines of a drawing, like this famous Wheat Flower and Charcoal
Drawing of Colette, must similarly be concerned to render
Colettes likeness, pay harmonious attention to all the other
lines and patches, and still mark themselves as distinctly those
of Jean Cocteau. A fine line of verse must carry forward its subject,
respond to other lines and remain Yeats, Mallarme or Frost.
Rollins display of scarlet letters suggest several designs
for the branding irons scar. One is like a cattle brand,
for cows belonging to the triple A; another began as an ink blot
and still another is by Crumb. After all, every adultery is different,
in its way. However, none of these designs seems presidential.
token, when handmade, rather than machine, can possess interest
and carry information about the writer and the writers attitude
toward what is written. Here is part of a poem in Rainer Maria
Rilkes elegant calligraphy, enclosed in a letter. His onetime
lover, Lou Andrea Salome, deplored his youthful scrawl and, on
her advice, he altered everything. He created a hand appropriate
for a poet. It was as poets have it, to tune his words so that
every sound interlinked with his fellows. Listen as I say this
fragment, slowly: Canst do dear den denken, das ich so,........
Can you imagine how I wander this way, a stranger in a world
of strangers? Now, his dotted is and coiled commas,
his loops and crossings, say to the reader what Rilke believed:
that only in his hand was the poem, ultimately, his, and finally
the poem is sacred, how much more so is the word of Allah? A traditional
orthography is rendered with such marvelous artistry that it becomes
art, itself. Moreover, so beautiful are they in our eyes, how
could the sentiments of this section of the Koran be otherwise
than right, whatever they are? This is an example of floriated
cufic from the 11th century. Here is an instance of interlaced
cufic. Each has a markedly different feel. Written on walls,
as at the Alhambra, the writing causes the stone to lighten and,
even, disappear altogether. The great ceilings are held up only
by holy words.
is but a step from this example to the methods of concrete poetry.
The word is to be made flesh, in fact. The curse of the writer
lies in the utter abstractness of the medium: ideas, on the one
hand, and their referents, on the other. But these referents are
mostly absent, and they are actually classes, anyway, simply more
abstractions. The chair, as an implement for sitting, and the
class of things that are chairs. Neither of these is even remotely
a chair, or any thing whatever. Of course, in French and as the
French are aware, it is flesh that we sit on. There are examples
earlier than this one, which happens to be by Optitanious in 300
AD. Its his altar.
of the matrix of letters, an image in red is allowed to appear.
Certain letters are circled so that, as an ensemble, they shall
assume a shape. The shape is connected to the sense. The sense
is seen to have been concealed in another text, which the overlay
now reveals. A piece of paper, properly punctured, when laid upon
a proper text, will allow certain letters to be read and a secret
message to be made out, and thats true, here.
is Alcuins 8th century acrostic. It believes that the connections
between words it has discovered are, equally, connections between
the ideas the words represent. This is, no doubt, the same error
that drives cabalistic meaning hunting, but these are errors arrived
at only after the exercise of considerable ingenuity. The lesson
is not only should the poet pay attention to his letters, he should
also observe how his words are spelled. Punsters do; isnt
poems--this charming one is Roberd Angeaus Laurel
of 1634--are either shaped by internal considerations, as most
free verse is--Mary Ann Moores selabic poetry is a good
case--or shimmed into position the way genre and traditional metrical
poetry is, like the sonnet, for instance. This Apollinaire caligram
is called Poem of 9 February, 1915. Apollinaire had
a lot of freedom in choosing his images, so that the result here
is as much the result of his strategy.
Buro, in 1919, did this one, called Lheur, The
Hour. Although there is a greater narrative to this scene
than most, it might be needlepointed, and hung upon the wall.
should be familiar with e.e. Cummings use of the concrete
idiom. Cummings poem, Stinging Gold Swarms Upon the
Spires, sounds another note, however, one I shall return
to. It involves the use of concrete, poetic devices for notational
purposes. Without performing this poem, it goes, Stinging
gold swarms upon the spires/silver/chance the litanies/the great
bells are ringing with rows/the lewd, fat bells/and a tall wind
is dragging the sea with dreamsssss.
the more famous of poems is George Herberts Angel
Wings. Herbert did a number of such poems, as well as arranging
poems in a book so as to symbolize a temple, the name he then
gave to the entire volume. The lines shrink as things decay, and
then expand again with the lark. They thin again in the second
stanza. I dont imagine angels have to work as hard as larks
do, frantically beating their way upstairs.
want to cite a contemporary example. Here is Hiro Kamiyoras
Water in Ice. Many of these strategies come together
in the very impressive work of Tom Phillips, who chose as his
verbal matrix a Victorian novel by W.H. Malick, called A Human
Document. Over each of the 367 pages of this bookwhich
has become, under his hand, the Humumenthe lays down
a different field of color and design, in many different styles.
He allows, however, certain words of the original text to shine
through and to form, thereby, short haiku-resembling poems, often
wry and usually amusing. In addition, these texts carry a story
forward from page to page. This has, in part, entering a
Europe of sudden bridges. The past A Human Document,
published in 1892, though largely hidden, blooms again in the
present, coming into view in a way analogous to the way hidden
meanings of medieval work do, or as codes reveal their secrets.
They also recall medieval illuminations and former calligraphical
exuberances. This is strange, enchanted, musical strings, echoing
with what has gone.
of these pages were especially created for a conference that the
International Writers Center held on the relation between poetry
and painting, called The Dual Muse. We spelled it
with an a but we wanted it to sound with the e.
The Humument has gone into three editions, each markedly
different. The figure here is Toge. Hes the hero, or principal
person, in this novel, a unique combination of letters in the
English language. That is to say, only in the word together
does this combination occur. The Humument is a veritable
encyclopedia on the relation between word and image. Instance
after instance, variation after variation. In addition to his
work as an artist, Phillips is a classicist. His translation of
Dantes Inferno is masterful, and his design for the
book in which the translation appears is even more so. He is also
a composer of operas, several of which are on CDs, more
easily available in London, where he lives. Here, I am the
window your dream stepped out of.
my novel, The Tunnel, I used a number of concrete prose
pieces. The novel is polka-dotted with visual prose. There were
a number of reasons for including visual effects in the book.
First of all, after traveling through 652 large, dense pages of
uninterrupted text, the reader would very likely be both numb
and blind, if he hadnt been saved by being bored. It was
necessary to break up the text by irregular spacing, game-playing,
introducing images and font changes. This said, there was another
impulse, which I couldnt realize. This novel, about a professor
of history whose specialty was Nazi Germany, would have looked
better set in that German type that I began this talk by showing.
I wanted each sentence in the book to look like a string of barbed
wire, but to the poor reader, wire cutters could not be provided.
Second, this book was an anti-novel, not a conventional narrative.
Its purported author is writing for and to himself, with
no general scheme or overall aim in mind. Those, I had to provide.
He is merely accumulating pages about himself and his life. The
pages of this subjective and personal history, so his wife wont
read them, he hides between the pages of a recently completed
manuscript about Hitler. That is, inside of every objective history
is hidden the subjective history of the historian. Ideally, all
of its pages should have been left loose and sold in a box, like
a ream of fancy paper.
he doodles, he dithers, he fools around, he wanders. The reader
is supposed to wonder how he can monkey so, at a time like the
time is alleged to be. But my narrator is nasty and wise and sensuous
and coarse and serious and crude, almost in one breath and gesture,
because I believe such contrary qualities live together, like
basillae in the intestines. Fourth, I used this piece of visual
prose because it was yet another way to focus the novel on one
of its symbolic centers, the window, and all the other things
that act, for the narrator, like windows: the pull-down maps in
his history classes; the pages of his history books, as was shown
just now in the Phillips example; and the blackboard on which
he writes, at the same time the blackest and emptiest of outer
spaces. This window is not a window, of course: through it, there
is nothing to be seen. It reads, In, among, amid people,
each like a wind, each wanting you to face its way, and with the
winds ineluctable compelling you, invisibly, as might oh
so many helpful, steering palms at your helpless elbow: wife and
lover, full of silent entreaty, parents, friends, bringing to
bear what once one could call the very breath of their being.
Students, critics, colleagues, strangers, swollen-cheeked, puffing
from every point, like those cherubs of the wind, til their
urging, your yielding, flood the whole compass. Except perhaps
here, on this little, windless page, where Im beseeched
by no one, heard by no one, unaffected, unaffecting, and can point
my own direction, if I any longer have one. Live as though I have,
and had, a life, let this vacant paper window frame a world.
window now shapes the narrators hollow center, a center
of retreat, a hollow formed by outside demands, the opening of
a tunnel. It is also my narrator, William Frederick Collers,
picture. It is the only description, really, I give of him.
made the window. Here is Socrates wind egg. Coller has invoked
the muse to help him in his exploration of himself, so I made
an egg of the muses, for they are the hatchers of all plans and
plots, and I balanced the egg on a line. The egg is not entirely
decorative, however, because it does contain a statement about
the novels aim and purpose, in complete contradiction, in
fact, to its apparent effect on most readers, who found the book,
as my one reviewer put it, loathesome. Another reviewer,
while penning my favorite opinion, wrote, Out of these sentences
emerges a ripe, overluscious, deliquescent world, rotten through
and through, but so solid that you try to flick the flies off
the page. I really liked that. Now, the egg, if unbroken,
reads, From the womb of memory, as arrows from the wind
egg, emerged the Muses, three originally, called Castilla, Pimpla
and Agnippe, and likened frequently to the ?, to the mountain
springs: quick, clear, sudden and sparkling cold, which bickered
down the slopes of Mount Helicon and Mount Parnassus. They were,
in order of their birthdays, Recollection, Contemplation and Celebration,
later corrupted three times over by unnamable panders and innumerable
pimps, cockbods, ass and cunt-collectors, who were satisfied simply
to enumerate areas of inspirational activity rather than illumine
its dark conditions, elements and causes, and went about it all
so recklessly that soon, there was a muse for spilled milk as
well as one for premature ejaculation. To perceive, to ponder,
and to praise, is the thing. Reviewers thought I was running
allowed my narrator every leeway. He drew cartoons, and out of
the names that the Nazis selected for use by the Jews, he composed
this Star of David. In some copies, I pasted a yellow star. That
made the book a Jew, though nobody noticed.
considers, in one extended passage, how the Greeks measured the
distance from the earth to Hell, though the epigraph for the book
insists that the road to Hell is the same from every place. So
I inserted the anvil that, according to legend, was supposed to
fall nine days and nights to reach the bottom of Tartarus. Among
my limitations in doing these drawings was that, although the
pages were supposed to look visually interesting, they also had
to appear the work of an amateur, since Professor Coller was no
artist. He invents a political party, which he calls the PDPthe
party of the disappointed people. So I was soon designing, in
Nazi style, their insignia. One of the armbands is shown just
below the anvil, and inside the anvil is an emblem which appears
on the cover of the book and alongside the first page of the text.
It is the emblem of the PDP. It is vaguely a bird, vaguely a spill,
vaguely an S.S. emblem. Vagueness, itself, might be
a fine name for a political party.
an entire page devoted to his sketches. I hoped this would tell
the reader more about the nature of this mans mind than
many paragraphs of prose. I could have described what he did,
but here the reader can see it.
are mysteries of life that we dont understand and, likewise,
in this novel. Under the text at one point, when the narrative
concerns a summer Coller has spent in the Finger Lakes region,
the lakes appear like a watermark. This is the reverse of the
Phillips technique. I particularly enjoyed placing things in the
text that were likely to remain inexplicable to most readers,
since I am actually a realist and want to present the world as
it really is: nasty, brutish and dark. Here, the insignia of the
PDP appears in another guise. What the months mean I will not
reveal. I love this page. I think the PDP insignia, on T-shirts,
would sell better than the book did. Everybodys a member
of that party.
from another text, an essay on the Mississippi, is a prose picture
of a different sort. Ive taken a sentence from that wondrously
rhetorical book of Mark Twains, Life on the Mississippi,
and found a metaphor to describe it. Its what I call a sentaphor.
I saw the sentence as a long tow, going down the river, so I wrote
some text to act as the rivers banks. But when it was printed,
it was printed incorrectly. The right hand margin should have
been justified and the inner margin of the upper triangle left
uneven, so you had real banks on both sides. Twains sentence
reads, He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth shaven,
horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault-finding,
moat-magnifying tyrant. A lot of qualifiers for one tow
to pull. The he here was, in fact, a ship captain.
for some other word-image relations. Muslim calligraphy is so
gorgeous that it never merely accompanies an illustration, like
a paid-for escort, nor does the illustration humbly serve the
text. They are real equals. This example is from the year of 1237.
in Hell, by Arozanova, in 1913, is an example of another
way that words can accompany a text. Though they try to look as
rough as the image, I still think theyd be wise to duck.
Rake is in the company of other visuals much like
it. When one cannot understand the language in which the text
is written, one can admire the calligraphy without distraction.
You lose, of course, the material it is supposed to be enhancing,
yet, you grant a greater importance to every curl.
an issue Ive already raised, has always been a concern of
mine. In philosophy, science, mathematics, literature and the
arts, its importance is fundamental and overwhelming, for an adequate
notation does not merely allow us to refer to something, it becomes
that something to the mind. The creation of an alphabet is a notational
task, and if your characters are Kanji, rather than Arabic or
Roman, like our own, the effects of their differences reach into
the mind itself, and help to shape the culture. In the 1100s,
musical notation as we know it began to emerge, and Western music
would have been impossible without its invention. 0
is more than round, it is like the wheel. It is as important an
invention and the very void it invokes. The infinity sign was
a similarly inspired creation. A score is far closer to its auditory
performance than a description is to the object it describes.
Here, in a bit of Handels Messiah, the words
and their meanings are cleverly aped by the movement of the notes.
When, in a passage, the crooked is made straight, the bumpy notes
become straight. When the rough places become plain, so does the
music. Here we see two notational streams in metaphorical relation.
The tenor stands to the left and reads the score from the same
page as the alto, standing on the right, reads it, while the bass
looks straight ahead. Now heres a score, lines of words,
and a seating diagram, all in one tidy package.
failure to conceive an adequate notation can cripple an art. Suppose
the commas curl curved the other way, and a dot were only
a dot, not a period. What might give you a more satisfactory embrace,
parentheses or brackets? Think of ballets recording in this
regard. Without a notation for years, memory alone allowed a masters
choreography to endure. Prosity, as well, has mainly remained
a mess. Heres an attempt to get the vowels in line by mimicking
music. Another try, another failure. When electronic became exciting,
and mixing media was no longer like mixing drinks, all sorts of
strange combinations of instruments and arts were tried, yielding
an equally odd musical score. This is a piece from 1968, by, for
actor, musician, dancer and light. It is all over the map.
the late 50s, I acquired a typewriter with a four color ribbon
and a wide carriage, so wide I could insert paper sideways. Naturally,
I had to play with these new toys. Gradually, I began a composition
of a story-manifesto about language and art, called Willie
Masters Lonesome Wife. There was, of course, the obligatory
shaped prose, a tannenbaum, to include, but I borrowed from Gogol.
Its about a fellow finding his penis baked in his breakfast
roll, like a toad in a biscuit. Its a takeoff from that
famous story of Gogols. He just couldnt say penis.
Among the things made fun of in this work were the conventions
of notation we take for granted, footnotes signified by asterisks,
for example, which increase until the footnotes squeeze the text
out, and eventually run wildly and alone, to become stars.
bent the straight lines of type that make up prose in normal books.
Here, the text suffers a bit of a blow. Then, of course, when
that happens, a commentary on what the text says. I took a fancy
passage of Sir Walter Scotts, and put it in a balloon, as
you would a cartoon, and wrote it down in cartoon sort of script.
of the reasons the reproduction is poor is that these pages are
mostly colored. Heres the customary Baudelarian attack on
the reader. The pages of Willie Masters are variously colored.
Finally youre let out of the damned book, but not without
a little sarcasm. The rings represent coffee stains left by the
authors cup upon the page. An actual stain would not be
significant, but a fake stain becomes a real sign. One ring says,
Youve fallen into our return to life. None of
these devices are new. These amusements have been pursued at least
from Stern to Stein.
solved many of logics early problems by establishing the
notation that made the syllogism possible. The problem of notation
is invariably a visual one. The symbols subject may not
be anything that can be correctly sensed. It may stand for a relation
between qualities or objects that are as evident, yet invisible,
as aboveness and betweenness. These relations, in Aristotles
case, between subjects and predicates, he represented as classes.
In short, he spacialized their connotations. He reduced the relation
of subject and predicate to the three meanings of the copula to
be. Subjects were identical with their predicates Business
is businessor they were included in their predicates
The species man is included in the genus primateor
they were members of the predicate group Socrates
is a member of the class Athenia, which is a
class included in man, consequently, Socrates must
also be a man. Later, ven diagrams, spacial forms, were devised
to represent these connections, and the way premises went together
in a syllogism to establish a conclusion. The history of grammar
is, in part, the history of efforts by students of linguistics
to visualize the syntax of their chosen language. In grade school,
we should have learned how to diagram sentences and, in that way,
learned that sentences create grammatical spaces, as well as logical
ones, as Aristotle proved. A great deal of ingenuity, much of
it misguided, has been employed to find the right way to see,
not the book, not the table, but the book on that table;
to see Socrates grammatically becoming an Athenian, a philosopher,
a pederast. This effort I think of as the inner tube. It is an
image of phonological space.
one I call the Delta, or The Big Leak.
But we mustnt make fun of their looks. Form is what holds
the sentence together, and it would be good to get a picture of
it. Another effort is a pyramid or, as I think of, the tinker
toy. The underlying assumption of these endeavors, including Aristotles
and those of the logicians who followed him, is that the human
mind, though it may unconsciously manipulate mathematical concepts
and abstract ideas at great speed by machine, cannot, on its own,
gain an understanding of an abstract or inherently relational
reality, except through spacialization. Time is the other dimension,
but time is always represented in spacial terms. When we hear
music, we hear it in its own space. When we do mathematics, we
are a guest in its space.
one I rather like. Its an Alexander Calder. From the subject
is suspended a verb phrase, balanced by a noun phrase. From the
verb phrase is suspended the verb and another noun phrase, while,
from that noun phrase, hangs the noun and its determinant, probably
the. Finally, from the last noun phrase dangles the
noun with its the, and how pretty it all is, too.
It even turns in rhetorical winds.
is the classical tree diagram and should be familiar. But sentences
are really not genealogical, though they can grow and they do
this is not the nose of a TWA plane, nor a picture of the way
they run their company, although the latter matches close. It
is a conflation diagram, and a conflation it is, too. These things
get remarkably complicated. However, in 1958, Professor Francis
named and developed the Chinese box pattern, which seems to meintuitively,
of courseto be in the correct Aristotelian direction. It
envisions terms as standing for sets, and sets as, simply, intellectual
spaces. From Francis suggestion, my wife, an architect,
and I have gone on to create sentence diagrams, laid out like
architectural floor plans, or sometimes to capture other features
to draw them to resemble facades, or other times to render them
as . This is a box diagram, suitable for the beginning of a sentence
by Henry James: They looked, the visitors. They vaguely
pretended to consider..., it begins. It goes on for some
length, naturally: its by James. Heres the box diagram
for Mallorys sentence, And so Sir Lancelot and the
damsel departed. And this is the architectural rendering.
The damsel, being less important than Sir Lancelot, is given a
smaller, more subordinate space. Some of you may have read our
recent article, The Architecture of the Sentence,
in Conjunctions magazine, so I shall not dwell on this area of
interest any further. But the project will occupy most of a book
called Body, Book and Building, which I hope we shall complete
next year. In this book, there will be a number of sentaphors,
like this one, which we drew up to visualize Sir Thomas Browns
unencouraging announcement that, Gravestones tell truth
scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand and
old families last not three oaks. We simply piled up the
clauses with their marvelously solid monosyllables, one upon another,
just as the sentence has done. We have some sentences shaped like
coffee tables, and so on.
philosophers, long ago, started spacializing sentences and then
the arguments made of them, it wasnt long before the pages
that displayed these sentences in sober, regimented lines, rectangular
paragraphs and tidy columns began being taken seriously as spaces,
too. The words, volume, page, column, chapter, stanza, margin,
leaf, cover and so on, or body, spine, back, front, jacket, etc.,
are almost exclusively body or building words. Mallarme wondered
why a sheet shouldnt be seen as a field. After all, thats
what the word line once meant, was a furrow. Or the
page might represent a bit of cosmic space. Youve been looking
at twelve squares from the maquettes for the poem ?
Still another example of human ingenuity, heres a sturdy
pair of volumes which house the work of Lope de Vega. On the paper
end, when we simply turned it around, was revealed whats
called fore edge paintings of animals and buildings.
Sometimes the paintings are done on the immediate area of the
page just in from the outer edge, and then carefully calibrated
so that a ruffle of the book will, like a curtain, display the
scene. This Last Supper was painted on the fore edge
of the English Book of Common Prayer, of 1853. When the
book is shut, nobody can be observed eating.
margins and pages, a space has been ignored. We merely rediscover
what others have already done, when it finally appears that what
theyve done may apply to our own problem. A book is like
an accordion or a music box. Open it out and it begins to play.
Do you see the city all right? Watch it grow. Isnt that
marvelous? It grows as if it had eaten something in Alice.
We 21st century folks have a lot of catching up to do.
and images, let alone words and music, arent always congenial.
Nor is there much reason why they should be, since their ontology
is so different. Although this former fast-fooder is rotting in
its own three-dimensional space, its photographic image exists
on the flat surface of a piece of transparent film and is, for
the most part, inseparable from it. Any snapshot can be taken
in at a glance, although details may take scrutiny over days.
They can be seen by anyone of almost any age and almost any country,
although what is seen may not be understand. Whereas words must
be learned and understood to be grasped in any way at all. Egg
fu yoog, you may be glad to learn, has only a token presence
here, because words are fundamentally conceptual, egg or not,
and exist in neither space nor time. Its their agents, yoog,
for instance, who are usually encountered along with its friend,
St. Paul. Reading might be recursive, but the experience of a
text, like that of a building, can only be completed little by
little, over time. While one chapter is being read, the others
seem to have disappeared. Not so for the visually alive egg roll
and fried rice.
is not always knowing. Naming is sometimes destroying, disarming
or disgusting. The pelt of an animal is all thats left of
this creature. Appropriately, its death took place in a cemetery.
At first, we arent sure what it is. Our eyes are nervous,
our mind hurries to find a name for it. Finally, fur,
skin, pelt, one of these, is chosen. An
inference remains to disturb us, but remove that little beaky
head and all we have here is a nice bit of nest material. I show
my students this texture study. They are willing to study it,
silently and calmly enough, until I tell them they are looking
at the floor of an abandoned building, which has been covered
over many years by a thick, crusty layer of pigeon shit. The oohs
occur and the giggles come. I describe the sound a step makes,
a throaty crunch, when you walk across it. A concept, a description,
has intervened and given a value to what they are seeing. They
see it no more as it visually is. They now have what Schopenhauer
called a corrupt consciousness. They are looking at
a concept and I took away their chance to think of it as guano
by using shit, instead. At least the concept, pigeon
shit, isnt the pigeon shit. There is that.
this slide, from my Dog Dung series, revulsion is
almost immediate. But how about the visual of the visual, I ask
them. I saw people look at photographs of used sanitary napkins
as if they were interesting abstractions, until they were told
what they were looking at. I call this the Serrano effect.
is this? Inquiring minds want to know. That is, we want a word.
Well, we have lots of words, and numbers: FD8456Z. Is that a Singapore
license plate? There are several tin cans and lots of wires. Questions
arise, of a familiar and depressing sort, such as: What is your
novel about? What is this a picture of? Aesthetically catastrophic
questions. As to what it is, I cannot tell you. Nor did I take
the shot because I couldnt figure it out, or because I could
use it in a course on aesthetic deprivation.
took this picture, however, because I liked the idea of these
boxcar parts, which, at one time, belonged to a functioning whole,
being put back together as a kind of still life by a magical click
of the camera. This mess had been made by men repairing old railroad
cars, as it turned out, and turning them into armored trains for
South America. Did the idea of reunion, that suggested the picture,
also ruin it, or was it the story about the armored train?
crucial question may be, are the concepts really operating outside
the image or are they integrated within it? So that any idea that
emerges is a constituent part of what should be seen. Seeing ideas
isnt so easy. Maybe in this abstraction, taken from a construction
site, a notion of what the elements of construction are can be
inferred. The elements of construction would be geometrys,
grids, spaces, solids, ups and downs.
love gas stations, photographically speaking; maybe I have an
affinity for their name. In any case, behind most of my so-called
serious snapshots, and provoking them into existence, is the work
of some real, some other, artist, a painter, usually. And I realize,
too poor to purchase their work myself, that I like to create
my own Kandinksys, Rothkos, and Mondrians. To look at things the
way a painter might, however, is not the way to look at things
as a photographer should, or so I suspect.
interferes with the eye like sentiment and story. I think that
Kant was quite right to insist that the aesthetic experience is
not mediated by concepts. He did not mean that concepts werent
available, he meant that they were not allowed to get in the way.
A few people who see this photo see a little girl clasping window
bars, a red curtain, the household wash, charming, quaint. Well,
as Gertrude Stein said, Quaint aint.
is always strong for the simple things in life. The edge of poverty
is not the edge of a knife. This pan speaks of long use and homely
virtue, but what I like are the lines, the lack of lines, the
several blues and the fact that the oval is askew. To most people,
the appeal of this pan is conceptual: poor, old, modest, hardworking
pan, a tribute to the Protestant ethic.
as ruinous is the appeal of the exotic. More questions from Singapore.
But this is decay of the best kind, the soulfully seedy. Decay
can make for great pictures, because, in nature, decay is the
result of countless law-governed acts of nature proceeding over
a long period and affected by innumerable other factors, each
one also slow, patient, orderly, of action and calm. Like the
composition of any work of art, to achieve texture and to realize
can elevate as well as eliminate. This pleasant picture can be
easily enhanced by informing you that its a decoration designed
by Richardson. Actually, it is the eye of the underworld rising
slowly to view the dirt of the world.
my all but one final example of the effects of conceptual intervention
in aesthetic affairs, here is perhaps, among my photos, my favorite.
But, what is it? An atoll in outer space? A clam and an oyster
in deadly combat? No. Its a car scar, a damaged fender.
influences are not all one way. The word gives rise to images
as often as images inveigle words. The Bible describes a great
flood and tells how Noah circumvented it, although the account
is confused. Here are a few unfortunates who apparently havent
tickets for the voyage. They seem to have lost all their possessions.
Here, a youthful Jesus preaches and before you know it, his slim,
blond, Aryan countenance is on every billboard. Say Jehovah,
think beard. We can all be happy for the great art
that such texts have given us, but how much has that art helped
the texts, though obviously they are indispensable to the propaganda
interests of the Church?
have underway a number of word and image projects, which I will
not burden you with, now, except to say that for one of them,
I read a fiction while accompanied by a slide track, somewhat
the way a soundtrack parallels a film. Its called Family
Album. We see as the narrator turns the pages of his snapshot
book in place of the people he talks about. They are only objects.
This is a photo of his fathers heart. Its essential
to the work that the photographs, having had their moment to be
seen, disappear, so it can never be reproduced as a book, but
must always be performed. The photographs also cant be too
good, otherwise they wont be in any persons photo
album, and that makes my work just about right. The other is a
collaboration with Michael Eastman, a really wonderful photographer,
on his composition of stereoptical images. The same subject is
photographed at different times and, often, at slightly different
angles, and then the two shots are joined to created a single
picture. When doubled, from the same single edge of a puddle comes
a pond. He photographs, I philosophize. Well be talking
a lot as the work proceeds.
fall, Im having a small show in St. Louis, and I decided
to emphasize the derivative nature of my pictures. I see what
has already been painted, and then I photograph the resemblances
I find. Im sure if the painters knew, theyd enjoy
their sense of superiority. I dont know what it says about
me, but I do have my obsessions. Safely unseen in my folders,
I have my Dog Dung series, an Oil Drum
series, a Torn Poster series, a Caution Lamp
series, and some oddly intriguing photographs of absolutely empty,
clear, blue skies.
should remember to include some pictures that arent blue,
or perhaps they should all be blue. That would be easier. In any
case, this last image is the signature shot of the show. We are
back to the question, what is it? Ive decided to call it,
The Ghost of Art. What the hell, why not? Thank you.
on, you said that art always runs counter to communication. Do
you think thats changed in the ways of, say, modern advertising?
Unless you just consider that design, rather than art.
it can be art. If the advertiser produces real art, what happens
is that that initially has an advantage. It draws the customers
eye. You can also draw it, of course, by being outrageous or any
number of other things. The problem is that if its real
art, its liable to keep the eye there, instead of releasing
it. The sign is supposed to draw the reader and then release him
or her to go buy the product. Suppose, for instance, we had our
signs for going places on the highway done by Mirot and Picasso.
People would stop and look at the signs. Another way of putting
it would be to suppose we had a composite drawer at the police
station. The success of that drawing depends on its usefulness
in capturing the criminal. What if Picasso were doing the drawings?
At a certain point, we stop worrying so much about whether the
drawings are good at catching the criminal, and we frame them
and hang them on a wall. One of the tensions, always, is that
the work of art tends to suspend the attention upon itself, rather
than upon what it was originally meant to communicate. Valery
put it very well when he said that the difference between art
and life is the difference between walking and dancing. This is
what a great number of people in that period were thinking about.
If Mallarme says, Pass the butter, we dont pass
the butter. Instead, we swoon. That, I believe, is one of the
problems in seeing advertising as art. Often, advertisers are
too clever. So, we love watching the ads, but they dont
get us to actually go out and buy the products. An ad that just
says, Prices slashed to zero, come and get it free,
will bring people out faster. Its an interesting dynamic,
I think. You do have to attract the eye and hold it long enough
to imprint, but if you just get admiration, its not serving
the purpose. Fortunately, a lot of art that comes out in arenas
that might be called commercial will not be recognized as real
art for a long time, meaning that people probably arent
seeing how good they are. Its the same way with those great
Russian posters. They say, Arise! Revolt! and you
say, Wow! What a great poster! Then you go home and
you dont arise, or revolt!
said something to the effect of, Words are fundamentally
conceptual and do not exist in space or time. I guess Im
a little confused by that statement, because it appeared to me
that your whole slide presentation showed exactly the opposite.
just the element of the token. The word itself is a conceptual
and referential thing. The only time that we get the reference
present is when we use whats called an indexical sign,
pointing and saying, that. So we are looking at that
at the same moment. But most of the time, the referent of a word
is a class of objects. The meaning of the word is another abstract
set of concepts, and they dont exist any place. This was
Platos point, I think. The token comes along to mediate.
It isnt the word, but it is the word as it appears in the
world. Thats why its so much fun to speak of the word
being made flesh. One of our better short story writers, Flannery
OConnor, who was a devout Catholic, believed in incarnation.
She wrote stories that were trying to capture that very notion
in the art, because what happens when the language is electrified
is that kind of spirit seems incarnate and buried in the flesh.
But, as the linguists tell us, the token is simply arbitrary.
It has no real connection with the concepts, it just happens to
be that. Yet, its the thing that goes out and appears in
sentences. The same thing happens with the sentence structure.
It is no place. It is instanced in this or that sentence. Thats
the curse of the writer. All artists want, I think, to be able
to do everything. If youre a painter, you want concepts;
if youre a writer, you want concreteness, but its
all hard to get. I suppose I went a little too far in saying,
the word, because the word is all three of these things.
seems to me like ideas are conceptual, but words can be quite
solid, weighty and meaningful, in their form, even though it might
be an allusion to something.
Thats one of the reasons, though, that I chose some earlier
examples, rather than contemporary ones, because were living
in such a secularized sense of language that we dont approach
the word and say, This is the presence of something great.
We think of it as Kleenex and throw it away.
dont agree with you in that. I understand what youre
saying about signifiers as separate from the referent. But, to
me, the concepts that the signifiers serve is governed by space
and time. For example, what I think of a chair would be different
from what you think of a chair. In that sense, I dont think
that words, or any kind of thinking, is devoid of space and time.
is a further example. It is the occurrence of the token in a site.
For instance, if I think the name George Bernard Shaw,
Im thinking of my idea of George Bernard Shaw. It might
not be the same as your idea and is probably not the right idea.
is no right idea.
theres where the crucial problem is. We can say theres
no completely accurate account of George Bernard Shaw and well
never be able to do that. I certainly would agree with that. But,
if I was to say that my idea of him is that he plays third base
for the Chicago White Sox, that would be wrong. This is a Platonic
argument, of course. It goes back a long way. My idea of a triangle
may only be accurate up to a point and it may omit a lot of things.
But if the idea of a triangle didnt exist, when we
all stopped thinking of triangles, there wouldnt be any.
I dont think thats true. What Plato wanted to argue
is that all instances of triangle are inadequate,
because they dont measure up to truly being three sided
figures with each side a straight line. Truly straight lines dont
exist in nature. There arent any triangles in nature. So
the whole question of this set of ideasmy idea, the idea,
and so onapplies to words, as well. One reader will have
a far greater understanding of the meaning of a particular work,
with its meaning, history, uses, echoes in other languages, etc.,
and therefore be ready to read Finnegans Wake a lot
more readily than somebody else. Thats all Im suggesting,
not that theres a perfect understanding someplace, but that
there are better and worse. Im old-fashioned and non-deconstructed.
question is kind of a continuation of what youve been talking
about. There seems to be a merging of Cartesian dualism and Platonic
pure form, with its impure, if you like, counterpart. Im
interested in these examples of concrete poetry, which is, in
a way, like making a figure out of the content of that figure.
Someone referred to a photograph as a message without a code.
How does the photograph relate to those figures of concrete poetry?
depend on the kind of photograph. You can do what I call sherlocking.
I could have shown a photo and then said, this photograph shows
somebodys motorbike leaning against the wall. And the motorbike
has a cover over it. Next to it, is an open umbrella. We can infer
from this that it recently rained, and that the person who rode
the motorbike up and leaned it against the wall left the umbrella
open instead of taking it. This is an actual photograph that I
have. We can infer from the fact that the bike isnt shackled
that this must be Kyoto, or someplace safe, where people dont
steal everything that is leaning against the wallwhich is
true, in this case. We can go on and on with inferences, and start
the beginning of the narrative that the photograph suggests. We
can do all that, or we could, for example, in the photograph of
the little girl, start a story. My daughter, who is also a photographer,
has found a bunch of early 19th century glass plates taken, probably,
in Buffalo, of people. Im going to write a story for them.
Theyre very suggestive, almost ghostly, presences.
But I may have wandered away from your question. I think that
my notion, at any rate, is that there can be words in the photograph,
but I want to see it as a photograph, rather than as something
to be decoded. Thats my theory of art in general, basically
does it mean when you say you want it to be seen as a photograph?
just saying that my theory of how to judge photographs would not
pay much attention to the abstractness of its message. I might
able to do itif I had a message that I liked, that would
be nice. But if it had a message it didnt like, I could
still say it was a wonderful picture. If it has no message, all
the better, because then I dont have to put the message
had a question about your concrete poetry. You were talking about
your images and wanting to see the photograph without having to
decode it. How about seeing the text not as a shape? Do you think
its more or less distracting than having an actual image
with text? When you turn your actual text into a shape, do you
think that takes away from the text? With a photograph, when you
lend text to it, that sometimes becomes the authority or decoding
of that image.
it can. It depends on whether or not you can integrate the activity
into the object. It is one of the reasons painters and other visual
artists, for a while, stopped putting titles on their paintings.
This is something weve all experienced. You go to a Kandinsky
show and there are people there nervously attempting to identify
the subject of the paintings. When I do the opposite in Willie
Masters Lonesome Wife, what I was attempting to do was
to break down the sense of traditional reading and what the traditional
reader is supposed to be looking at. The traditional reader often
just goes through the words to the imagined scene. Thats
why you can read so much bad stuff, because youre not paying
attention to the way in which its being written. Otherwise,
no one would ever get through Dreiser. Hes such a bad writer.
People are after something else, and thats fine. They can
be after anything. But you can call attention to the fact that
these are words on a page, with certain shapes. Ill use
the example of Jack Hawkes, who has wonderful descriptions of
terrible things. Theres a tension between the beauty of
the description and the terrible thing being described. One says,
isnt it immoral to be writing beautifully about, say, the
Holocaust? It might very well be, but the text will still be beautiful.
a little curious about your notion of what communication is. This
goes back to the statement, Art always runs counter to communication.
and counter to nature. Thats Rilkes point.
communication, according to you, always have to invoke action?
Does it have to be linguistic? In my opinion, you can stare at
a Rothko painting, meditate on it, and that is its own form of
communication, even if it cant be translated into words.
can tell you my meaning of communication. There are two meanings
that got famously confused in Tolstoys What is Art.
There is communication in which I infect you with my disease.
In short, I present you with something that has a certain feeling,
it communicates the feeling to you and you go away with that feeling.
That is one sense of communication. The other sense is where I
say, Gee, Im feeling terrible, despite the fact
that Im looking robust, and you understand what I said.
Those two things are both translatable. That is, it can be done
in other words. There are lots of different ways of saying that
you feel terrible, and of showing that you feel terrible, but
in a work of art, there is that way only. It cant be translated.
You could, of course, have other meanings of communication, that
might suit the Rothko. Thats exactly what I do with Rothko.
When Im reading Beckett, people tell me how depressing it
is. But its not depressing, its absolutely elevating.
Some of the passages in which Beckett is expressing this awful
world are absolutely wonderful. You go away feeling fine. So,
the work of art is not infecting you with something, and is not
simply telling you something you can then take away. If I tell
you how to make an explosive, you dont need to remember
word for word what I said, you just need to remember how it was
done, and it can be expressed in lots of different ways. I would
say anything is communication which is translatable.
about something like Guernica?
dont think its translatable. Not that it doesnt
communicate something, but what its communicating is something
banal: War is hell. But if thats its value,
then we dont need it. People used to say what makes
Dosteyevski great is this marvelous psychology. Well, once we
have it, we dont need to read the book any more, if thats
all that is going on. Once the communication has been made, we
dont need the thing itself. This is an old argument, going
back to Susan Sontags Against Interpretation. I cannot
replace the thing with its interpretation. Otherwise, we can just
take away the work, and not go back to it. So, if Im seeing
some particular photographs that I love immensely, I can, of course,
say, This is showing me something about the way certain
people were, how they lived, and what it was all about then,
and it may very well. Once I have that, then I wouldnt need
to go back to the photograph, right? But I do go back to it.
does it have to either/or? Art, to me, has that element. The oldest
argument is that art educates and entertains. You dont have
to choose either one. It communicates, but on top of that there
is much more, and thats why we go back. If thats only
message, then theres no need for art.
agree with you, but I want to emphasize something. For example,
when were having a dinner party and sitting around the table,
enjoying the company of friends, eating, and so forth, a lot of
values are integrated into that experience, from economic to calorific
to conversational. Thats wonderfulwhy would we want
to thin out any of those? But if someone were to say, Is
the wine good? and I say, Yes, because I think shes
getting seduced! Thats one function! Say Im
having this magnificent dinner, but sitting next to Hermann Goering
spoiling my enjoyment of the food, that seems reasonable. It wont
spoil the food, which will be just as good or bad as it was before.
Thats what Im saying, is you judge the excellence
of a work of art formally. Not that it cant have all kinds
of other values going on, and be good or bad in those ways. Thats
what Dreiser is valuable for: he exposed certain social conditions,
in some of the most wretched prose imaginable. Its worthwhile,
but not as a novelist or an artist. There is another way of putting
this. There is a group of writers who were just awful people and
wrote morally awful booksCeline, for example. Hes
a great writer. Thats not a contradiction, in my mind. There
are lots of artists who are terrible people with terrible ideas.
Degas was an anti-Semite and a misogynist. So what? The world
outlook of works can be so various. If we make any other judgments
than aesthetics, Sophocles, Goethe, Milton cannot all be good,
because they have completely different pictures of the world.
Theyre fictions, but beautiful ones. Most of philosophy
is fiction, conceptual fictions. You can say Plotinus is magnificent,
but it doesnt mean you believe him. Thats an aesthetic
judgment. If it comes to saying, Yes, but is it true?
then most of these philosophical schemes arent. They cant
be. As Nietzsche said, they contradict one another. When you have
a contradiction, both may be false, but only one can possibly
just wanted to say two things. One is that Im a little disappointed
by what youre saying right now, because your presentation
was a search for a third meaning, that doesnt entirely depend
upon the form or content, that is communicated, but not completely
by grammatical language or indexical interpretation of the image.
But what you are saying right now doesnt make a separation
between the artist as a person and his or her work of art. You
are basically devoiding a work of art of its content, so that
there is only a formalistic judgment left, which I dont
was the thrust of the examples from Aristotle. What he discovered
was that the validity of an argument doesnt depend on its
content. All of mathematics is like that, too. Math is self-validating,
and I think works of art are, as well. Im searching for
a further formal interpretation. I want to take the notion of
form much further than it has been traditionally taken. I would
include, in my formal analysis, a lot of things that are left
out of traditional analysis. They are concentrating on certain
kinds of thingslinguistic analysis, logical analysis. Thats
fine, but its only dealing with one element, and I want
to deal with a lot more. I am searching for that, but its
true that it is basically formal. Im sorry to disappoint,
but Im looking for a different, more complete way of ordering.
It would be more inclusive and contain more elements, but I still
believe the artists job is formal.
it elitist to think of this pure, elevated art form? You say youre
searching for this very objective idea, but at the same time I
can hear the judgment and the subjectivity when youre writing
about a work of art.
I think what youre trying to get at is something
that comes up a lot. It has to do with judgment, and a so-called
elitist position. It seems to me that the whole purpose of culture
is judgment and choices. Cultural systems are about choosing to
do A rather than B, this way rather than that way, and so on.
The question is, are there better and worse ways? Is there a right
way? The word elitist usually comes in to suggest
that theres a hierarchy of such levels, but this is very
strange. Its just a function of our so-called democratic
society to put down the word elitist, but everybodys
an elitist. We all go to the baseball games, but all sports are
elitist to the core, and so are movies with their stars. When
theyre not being political, people talk about the better
restaurants. Its the job of people who are trained in a
specific area. That area of judgment of, say, what constitutes
a good, safe, well-fitting shoe requires certain knowledge that
not everybody has, and some people are better at it than others.
Is that elitist? I dont see the point. If someone trains
throughout their life to become a good reader, thats just
like being a tea-taster or wine-taster, in that it involves certain
kinds of discrimination based on lots of experience and knowledge.
That seems to happen all the time, and its not particularly
surprising. There are better and worse in this and that. But if
you start saying, this class has all of the stuff, and thats
what you mean by elitist, then Im not one, at
all. If you mean that its important to make judgments and
make them wisely, and this happens over and over again, necessarily,
then I would agree. Societies do, sometimes, even get better.
If we think what a society does is just a matter of subjective
choices, we ignore the possibility for improvement. No artist
can, I think, do anything else but make these judgments, all the
time. Allan Ginsberg used to say that he always trusted the first
word. And I said, oh, that explains your poems.
know youve already covered this to some extent. You said
that works of art should be evaluated by their formal qualities
rather than by interpretation. Do you see, then, a separate role
for interpretation and criticism?
do a lot of this myself, and Im always uneasy about this.
Theres a political war between critics and writers thats
been going on for some time. Thats why writers don
t like deconstruction, because the critic was trying to take over.
The critic was attempting to hand over the rite of interpretation
and power over the text to, supposedly, the reader. In fact, he
was handing them over to himself. You can see those moves, not
just from deconstruction angles. When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his
big book about Flaubert, he was writing about a writer that he
really didnt like. He wrote so much that the idea became,
the only way to get to Flaubert was to go through Sartre. Its
like reaching the center of Paris by going through the suburbs.
That was an act of power-grabbing. That kind of war is going on
all the time. The idea is to replace the primary source by the
secondary. As a person who would like to make a primary source
someday, Im against it. But I do a lot of that myself. The
question becomes, what role has criticism to play? I think its
something like this: if you can get people to go up the mountain,
then youve done the work that the critics supposed
to do. They have the experience of the mountain, and then get
out of the way. The idea, to me, of a good critic is somebody
who clears obstacles, makes it possible to confront, experience
or read, and gives you the equipment to do it properly.
do you see much interpretation these days as being fairly reductive?
yes. Interpretation is, by nature, reductive. Otherwise, we dont
go back to the thing.