Let’s say you’re French and you only speak French. In your eyes, I’m just a reprehensible Englishman. Actually I am a United Statesian, although it’s true that I wrote some books in the English tongue. But my literary labors will mean nothing to you, since the lingual barrier leaves you clueless as to whether I’ve written well or poorly. Plus my sayings are dark.
And what about the post-literate speakers of Pictograph—aren’t they in the same boat with the French monoglots?
Yesterday I was trying to pass the time before work, and, without intending to, I ended up reading through two of the less-good books by William Carlos Williams. I call them “less-good” to stress that, if I mention their titles, it is only for the sake of citation, dear diary, not to recommend them. Their titles are The Descent of Winter and A Novelette. They’re each very short. And it’s not that I dislike them; I just think they’re less distinguished than the Williams books that I really admire, like Spring and All. (My take on WCW’s writing is: The wilder, the better.) Here’s an excerpt from A Novelette.
Did the academicians but know it, it is the surrealists who have invented the living defense of literature, that will supplant science; and it is they who betray their trust by allowing the language to be enslaved by its enemies; the philosophers and the venders of manure and all who cry their wares in the street and put up signs: “House for sale.”
The word they, in the phrase “it is they who betray,” is ambiguous: I take it to refer to the academicians.
Speaking personally (by the way, isn’t that a junk phrase?—aren’t we always speaking personally?) no artistic group has enthused me more than the surrealists. You’re born into some persuasions, and you choose others. My own parents, alas, never got divorced; so the mental scam that I had to escape from was twofold: my mother’s weapon of choice was religion, specifically Christianity; my father’s was politics, specifically Conservative Talk Radio. I myself have always been drawn to art—most strongly, I repeat, by the surrealists.
But maybe surrealism’s attraction is stronger for creators than for spectators—I’ve always found its wild lawlessness to be liberating: it emphasizes potential and possibility, against the constriction that comes from trying to imitate more established movements, whose splendors are often taken to be classic “rules.” (I paraphrase this reflection by Philip Glass: When my teacher said “You are breaking the rules of musical composition,” I saw that she meant “You are not doing it the way that Mozart did it.”) As a reader, my bent is for the tried-and-true; but, as an aspiring creator, I’m drawn to surrealism, because it gives me permission to err. —Here’s section VII from Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”:
Surrealism helps me feel fit to fail; I guess that’s my point. Perhaps it is a stupid confidence that I derive from these antinomian factions—that’s OK: I’m a fan of stupidity. Now here are two more paragraphs from A Novelette:
It has always angered me that other classes of men write their books in words which they betray. How can a philosopher, who is not an artist, write philosophy in words? All he writes is a lie.
Surrealism does not lie. It is the single truth. It is an epidemic. It is. It is just words.
I love Williams whether I agree or disagree with him—I love him for his intensity. This last quote sounds great to me, although I think it’s wrong: I think that many philosophers are artists indeed; and, even if it is a “betrayal” for one to compose philosophy in letters, I think it has value precisely because of that perversion!
One more thought, re: “How can a philosopher… write philosophy in words?” I see John Cage as a philosopher whose medium is sound; likewise I consider Roy Lichtenstein to be a philosopher in images—so maybe they would find acceptance in Williams’ Republic.
And regarding “All he writes is a lie,”—that is a high compliment; so, if it’s applied to philosophers of letters, I beg to differ: My problem with written philosophy is that it does not confidently lie enough. Even my favorite “philologer” Friedrich Nietzsche, who is often numbered among that aforementioned band, seems limited, when compared to the highest poets. Sir John Falstaff outdoes Zarathustra (this is yet another observation that I steal from Harold Bloom)—Nietzsche’s attempt to represent a sage devoid of a superego is supplanted by Shakespeare’s triumph in that respect. …By the way, compare the roots of author and character: shake/spear; fall/staff.
Williams worked as a physician. Webster Schott, the editor of the collection that I’ve been rereading (called Imaginations) explains that “…the practice of medicine and the craft of literature were so intertwined in William Carlos Williams he could not have succeeded (one is tempted to say he could not have stayed alive) without both.” Then, in his introduction to A Novelette, Schott says: “The book is partly about the influenza epidemic that struck the U.S. in the early 1920’s and the pressures Williams felt as a result. […] The circumstances of writing it—the epidemic surging, no advance planning, Williams firing away with his typewriter—give the work some of the spontaneity of the Improvisations…”
Williams’s medical overwork during the epidemic is pertinent to a consideration of those three short statements that end the above-quoted passage: “[Surrealism] is an epidemic. It is. It is just words.” I take this outburst as ambivalent. Just words!? (And what are your books, Mr. Williams, if not just words?) …I only partly understand his attitude—and that’s what piques my interest.