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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

3 readings in time and art

Wikipedia Commons

Literature in time
Sven Birkerts at LitHub:
"Can the 'Literary'Survive Technology?"

Sven Birkerts has been depressing me--stylishly so--for many years. Here's a recent clip:
...I don’t see the literary as we have known it prevailing or even flourishing. With luck, it will survive for some time yet at the present scale, which is, in terms of societal influence and prestige, already much diminished from former times. But we should keep in mind that those were times when the seemingly sedate verbal art was not yet beset on every side by the seductions of easily accessible entertainment. In the future, literature will likely not command enough marketplace attention to make it commercially viable at any corporate level, but might rather become (and this is not a bad thing) an artisanal product that functions either as a vital inner resource or else as a status marker for its reduced population of consumers. What we might think of as old-school “serious” literature may come to function as a kind of code among initiates. At that point charges of elitism will not have to be defended against—they will have been fully earned.
Elder artists, 2
Elder Eden:
clips from Art News

Here's more on artists (sculptors and painters in this case) continuing to work well into old age:
A historical look reveals that a striking number have been highly productive and turned out some of their best work late into old age, including Bellini (who died at 86), Michelangelo (d. 89), Titian (d. between 86 and 103, depending on your source), Ingres (d. 86), Monet (d. 86), Matisse (d. 84), Picasso (d. 91), O’Keeffe (d. 98), and Bourgeois (d. 98).

“Working becomes your own little Eden,” Thiebaud says, while acknowledging the challenge of overcoming the traps of what others think and say. “You make this little spot for yourself. You don’t have to succeed. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to be obligated to anything except that development of the self.” 

Obliterating the past
"The Anomaly of Barbarism":
John Gray at Lapham's Quarterly

And here is a clash between ancient art and year-zero desire:
 The destruction of buildings and artworks, which ISIS has perpetrated at the ancient site of Palmyra among other places, has several twentieth-century precedents. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks razed churches and synagogues in Russia. Mao Zedong demolished large parts of China’s architectural inheritance and most of Tibet’s, while the Pol Pot regime wrecked pagodas and temples and aimed to destroy the country’s cities. In these secular acts of iconoclasm, the goal was to abolish the past and create a new society from “year zero”—an idea that goes back to “year one” of the calendar introduced in France in 1793 to signal the new era inaugurated by the French Revolution. Systematically destroying not only pre-Islamic relics but also long-established Islamic sites, the aim of ISIS is not essentially different.


  1. Birkerts points to a time when poets specializing in concise forms (more easily distributed and read via short-attention span electronic media) rather than novelists and writers of long-forms of literature (not easily digested via electrons) will rule the literary world (or what remains of it). So, poets of the world, keep on keeping on.

    1. Unfortunately, I think the short lyric poem tends to be in somewhat of a parlous state and needing renewal by more diverse, now-forgotten and not-yet-invented forms. But you're right, short-attention span forms may increase.

  2. i note considerations of change sweeping my little corner of the webnet this morning. it is constant and unnoticed, and rarely dealt with in our philosophies(ham)... Buddha said we all live in a burning house. form is nonexistent(known as no-mind) and function is the shaping of change, which is "creativity". humans do it in many ways; the latter growing and waning with our conceptions of "time"... cycling waves often swamp our boats, but drowning is not possible so long as one poet survives...

    1. Horatio:
      O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

      And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
      There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
      Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

      I thought of Hamlet... who certainly lived in a burning house, both his own body and the royal house, also a body, and the world.

      Birkerts certainly seems to rely on the idea of the one or few, washed and tossed by waves of change, but surviving.

      And now, back to revision of poems aka life rafts!

    2. Marly, I respond to your provocation by returning yet again to Elsinore this afternoon and this evening. Almost all things in heaven and earth can be found within those castle walls. Shakespeare beckons! I wonder what I will find during this visit. Thanks.

    3. Hi, Tim--

      Hope you found something of interest in that microcosm! Have been ferrying and laboring but will check and see later.

  3. Birkets makes many good points in that piece, but I found it frustrating, because he, like many commentators, sees these trends as inevitable, like cold fronts and tides, as if we have no control over them--as if we have no control over the reading and learning and consumption habits of children. People just shrug and go, "well, I guess this is the way it's going," as if the appetites of the next generation formed ex nihilo.

    This week, the Lady of the House is preparing to teach poetry to her ninth graders. The lesson is a simple one: why poets make the choices they do about structure and form, and what results from their choices. But what the discussions and assignments will get them to do is, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, slow the heck down and read with precision and care. There's no reason school (and life) can't have more such opportunities to slow down and focus, except that as individuals and collectively, we choose otherwise.

    In the wealthy, educated D.C. neighborhood where I used to live, parents fought like mad to give their kids opportunities like this: lessons and camps and after-school activities that taught them focus and patience and cultural knowledge, all of which will make them the lords and masters of other kids who devote most of their free time to playing repetitive video games. In addition to giving us much-needed truth and beauty, the fine arts can also help inculcate the habits that make the elite prosperous and successful. Just because art and literature need us to rise and meet them on their own terms doesn't mean that snobbery and elitism are the only arguments for their importance; I'm certain there are long-neglected arguments for their power to elevate the lives of people who need help the most.

    1. I have been interested to see that over the years, Birkerts seems more and more confirmed in his feeling that words are on the way out, and that the literary is doomed. Really, though, he has made quite a few books out of such things--and surely that ought to suggest otherwise, at least a little!

      Glad that your lady has an interesting way of teaching poetry. One of my students at the Antioch workshops a few summers ago taught "Thaliad" in St. Louis to a bunch of boys--they all wrote me letters. Such fun! But they also read an astonishing range of writers, Milton and Shakespeare and many more. Just middle schoolers, and not privileged ones, either.

      I remember reading the diary of a miner in the nineteenth century--full of his excitement about books. We don't see workers much in novels any more, but I feel sure some in real life are still devoted to books.

      And how small the circle of readers once was, and how golden some of those eras with small numbers. Lately I have been feeling more heartened about simply continuing on without any worry over these things--though I still find them of interest--just wandering on my way, sticking to the path of the beautiful and good and true. It seems entirely all right, even though many other things connected with books may not be.

    2. There it is—you've helped me hone in on what bothered me about the Birkerts piece. It just seems to me that someone who edits a journal, runs a major writing program, and has received several prestigious grant ought to be more than just a chronicler of decline, but a champion for things that stall or even reverse that decline. I don't mean to slander him; I just don't understand how someone can devote his life to long-form literary writing and then calmly chronicle its diminution.

      I too will continue to do my thing. They also serve who only sit and write!

    3. Haha! I like that Miltonian variation.

      Yes, we need champions, and Birkerts could be one.

  4. Elder artists: Hermann Broch's essay "The Style of the Mythical Age: On Rachel Bespaloff" has some interesting paragraphs on "the style of old age." It is collected in the NYRB volume War and the Iliad with essays by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I no longer have good inter-library loan but will check it out when I'm away....


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.