Gautier.  Loves the useless because the beautiful is useless.



Mr. Locke very justly and finely observes of wit, that it is chiefly conversant in tracing resemblances; he remarks at the same time, that the business of judgment is rather in finding differences. It may perhaps appear, on this supposition, that there is no material distinction between the wit and the judgment, as they both seem to result from different operations of the faculty of comparing. But in reality, whether  they are or are not dependent on the same power of mind, they differ so very materially in many respects, that a perfect union of wit and judgment is one of the rarest things in the world. When two distinct objects are unlike to each other, it is only what we expect; things are in their common way; and therefore they make no impression on the imagination: but when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblance we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature. A piece of news is told me in the morning; this, merely as a piece of news, as a fact added to my stock, gives me some pleasure. In the evening I find there was nothing in it. What do I gain by this, but the dissatisfaction to find that I had been imposed upon? Hence it is, that men are much more naturally inclined to belief than to incredulity. And it is upon this principle, that the most ignorant and barbarous nations have frequently excelled in similitudes, comparisons, metaphors, and allegories, who have been weak and backward in distinguishing and sorting their ideas. And it is for a reason of this kind that Homer and the oriental writers, though very fond of similitudes, and though they often strike out such as are truly admirable, they seldom take care to have them exact; that is, they are taken with the general resemblance, they paint it strongly, and they take no notice of the difference which may be found between the things compared.

Now as the pleasure of resemblance is that which principally flatters the imagination, all men are nearly equal in this point, as far as their knowledge of the things represented or compared extends. The principle of this knowledge is very much accidental, as it depends upon experience and observation, and not on the strength or weakness of any natural faculty; and it is from this difference in knowledge that we commonly, though with no great exactness, call a difference in Taste proceeds.

So long as we are conversant with the sensible qualities of things, hardly any more than the imagination seems concerned; little more also than the imagination seems concerned when the passions are represented, because by the force of natural sympathy they are felt in all men without any recourse to reasoning, and their justness recognized in every breast. Love, grief, fear, anger, joy, all these passions have in their turns affected every mind; and they do not affect it in an arbitrary or casual manner, but upon certain, natural and uniform principles. But as many of the works of the imagination are not confined to the representation of sensible objects, nor to efforts upon the passions, but extend themselves to the manners, the characters, the actions, and designs of men, their relations, their virtues and vices, they come within the province of the judgment, which is improved by attention and by the habit of reasoning. All these make a very considerable part of what are considered as the objects of Taste; and Horace sends us to the schools of philosophy and the world for our instruction in them.

Whatever certainty is to be acquired in morality and the science of life; just the same degree of certainty have we in what relates to them in works of imagination. Indeed it is for the most part in our skill in manners, and in the observations of time and place, and of decency in general, which is only to be learned in those schools to which Horace recommends us, that what is called Taste by way of distinction, consists; and which is in reality no other than a more refined judgment. On the whole it appears to me, that what is called Taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners and actions. All this is requisite to form Taste, and the groundwork of all these is the same in the human mind; for as the senses are the great originals of all our ideas, and consequently of all our pleasures, if they are not uncertain and arbitrary, the whole groundwork of Taste is common to all, and therefore there is a sufficient foundation for a conclusive reasoning on these matters.




It is as ridiculous to say that a man is a drunkard because he describes an orgy, a rake because he describes a debauchery, as to claim that a man is virtuous because he writes a moral book.

It is one of the manias of these little scribblers with tiny minds, always to substitute the author for the work and to turn to the personality, to give some poor scandalous interest to their wretched rhapsodies. They know quite well that nobody would read them if they just contained their personal opinion.

Books follow manners and manners don’t follow books. Pictures are done from models, and not models from pictures. Someone or other said somewhere or other that literature and the arts had an influence on manners. Whoever it was, he was certainly a great fool. It is as if one said: green peas make the spring grow; green peas grow, on the contrary, because it is spring.

There are two kinds of utility, and the meaning of the term is always relative. What is useful for one is not useful for another. You are a cobbler, I am a poet. It is useful for me that my first line rhymes with my second. I have no wish to disparage the illustrious profession of cobbler, which I honor as much as the profession of constitutional monarch, but I humbly admit that I should rather have my shoe unsewn than my line ill-rhymed, and that I’d rather do without shoes than do without poetry.

Is there anything absolutely useful on this earth and in this life which we are living? To begin with, there is very little use in our being on earth and being alive. I defy the most learned of my company to say what purpose we serve, unless it is not to subscribe to Le Constitutionnel or to any kind of paper whatever.

Nothing beautiful is indispensable to life. If you suppressed the roses, the world would not materially suffer; yet who would wish there were an end of flowers? I would rather give up potatoes than roses, and I believe that there is only one utilitarian in the universe who could tear up a bed of tulips to plant cabbages.

What is the use of women’s beauty? Provided that a woman is physically well formed, and that she is capable of bearing children, she will always be enough for economists.

What is the use of music? What is the use of painting?

Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory.

I am among those to whom the superfluous is necessary.

I prefer to a certain useful pot a Chinese pot which is sprinkled with mandarins and dragons, a pot which is no use to me at all.

I should most joyfully renounce my rights as a Frenchman and as a citizen to see an authentic picture by Raphael, or a beautiful woman naked.

The most becoming occupation for a civilized man seems to me to be inactivity, or cogitating as one smokes one’s pipe or cigar.

My God! What a stupid thing it is, this so-called perfectibility of the human race! I am sick and tired of hearing about it.


This is an epic battle between a sensible, dignified philosopher and a crazy, outrageous one.

Edmund Burke demands that we trace the connection between art and life; he trusts that we can measure Taste, that Taste is not merely the whim of an individual person.  Is this a truth, or a dream?

Gautier believes art is precisely that which is not connected to life, but is best when it is a mere dream.

Gautier, painter, poet, critic, (b. 1811) gives us Art for Art’s sake before Pater, before Wilde.

We prefer reading Gautier.  He is delightful.

We wonder though, if Gautier is aware that his simple love of a Chinese pot makes the art traders rich, and that his “inactivity” is impossible?





Matthew Arnold: sentimental, dour, whiskered. Influenced T.S. Eliot.



Wordsworth says in one of his letters:—

“The writers in these publications, (the Reviews) while they prosecute their inglorious employment, can not be supposed to be in a state of mind very favorable for being affected by the finer influences of a thing so pure as genuine poetry.”

But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be? Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets; nay is it certain that Wordsworth  himself was better employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface, so full of criticism, and criticism of the works of others? Wordsworth was himself a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted that he has not left us more criticism; Goethe was one of the greatest critics, and we may sincerely congratulate ourselves that he has left us so much criticism.

The critical power is of lower rank than the creative. True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two thing are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the highest function of man; it is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness. But it is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well-doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it in criticising. This is one thing to be kept in mind. Another is, that the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art, however high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible; and that therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible.

For the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control.




Lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life, and it began to keep pace with printing. But only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography. For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech. A film operator shooting a scene in the studio captures the images at the speed of an actor’s speech. Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadow the sound film.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.


It seems to us that Arnold is merely speculating to no purpose, while Benjamin really has something to say.






Wilson. Knew everybody: Edna Millay, Hemingway, Nabokov, LBJ; a blue blood Harold Bloom, he called Lord of the Rings “trash.”



We are not accustomed, in our quarter of the world, either to having the government attempt to control literature and art or to having literary and artistic movements try to identify themselves with the government. Yet Russia, since the Revolution, has had a whole series of cultural groups which have attempted to dominate literature either with or without the authority of the government; and Trotsky himself, in his official position, even in combating these tendencies, cannot avoid passing censure and pinning ribbons. Sympathizers with the Soviet regime used to assume that this state of affairs was inseparable from the realization of socialism: that its evils would be easily outgrown and that in any case it was a great thing to have the government take so lively an interest in culture. I believe that this view was mistaken.

Under the Tsar, imaginative literature in Russia played a role which was probably different from any role it had ever played in the life of any other nation. Political and social criticism, pursued and driven underground by the censorship, was forced to incorporate itself in the dramatic imagery of fiction. This was certainly one of the principal reasons for the greatness during the nineteenth century of the Russian theater and novel, for the mastery by the Russian writers—from Pushkin’s time to Tolstoy’s—of the art of implication.  The stories of Turgenev, which seem mild enough to us today, were capable of exciting the most passionate controversies—and even, in the case of A Sportsman’s Sketches, causing the dismissal of the censor who had passed it—because each was regarded as a political message. Ever since the Revolution, literature and politics in Russia have remained inextricable.

But after the Revolution, the intelligentsia themselves were in power; and it became plain that in the altered situation the identification of literature and politics was liable to terrible abuses.

Lenin and Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Gorky, worked sincerely to keep literature free; but they had at the same time, from the years of Tsardom, a keen sense of the possibility of art as an instrument of propaganda. Lenin took a special interest in the moving pictures from the propaganda point of view; and the first Soviet films, by Eisenstein and Pudovkin, were masterpieces of implication, as the old novels and plays had been. But Lenin died; Trotsky was exiled; Lunacharsky died.

Friedrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness, warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. (Balzac was one of the great literary admirations of Engels and Marx, the latter of whom had planned to write a book on him.)

The recent damning of the music of  Shostakovich on the ground that the commissars were unable to hum it seems a withdrawal from the liberal position.

The truth is that the talk in Soviet Russia about proletarian literature and art has resulted from the persistence of the same situation which led Tolstoy under the old regime to put on the muzhik’s blouse and to go in for carpentry, cobbling and plowing: the difficulty experienced by an educated minority, who were only about 20 percent of the people, in getting in touch with the illiterate majority. In American the situation is quite different. The percentage of illiterates in this country is only something like 4 percent; and there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups. Our development away from England, and from the old world generally, in this respect—in the direction of the democratization of our idiom—is demonstrated clearly in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language; and if it is a question of either the use for high literature of the language of the people or the expression of the dignity and importance of the ordinary man, the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.




Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism.  Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of a masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically presumed as heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention—although others surely did.

Power seemed to be more than an exchange between subjects or a relation of constant inversion between subject and an Other; indeed, power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender. I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?

Female Trouble is also the title of the John Waters film that features Divine, the hero/heroine of Hairspray as well, whose impersonation of women implicitly suggests that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.

To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as “genealogy.” A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

Is “the body” or “the sexed body” the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of a gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.

Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.


It is a truism that in any contest, success depends on unity and cooperation (including “healthy competition”) while division and strife leads to failure.  A whole is comprised of parts, but here’s the question: what are the parts doing to make the whole a healthy one? But how do we know this “whole,” in its context, is a good thing, unless we see it, in turn, as a part behaving to make a larger whole healthy, the health of everything eventually sweeping up all in its global good?  All philosophical investigation must be concerned not with parts, nor with their combination into something greater, but with the largest possible cooperative assemblage: here is where the lone philosophical genius seeks philosophical truth and the philosophical good—everything else is mere power-grabbing, strife and lies.

Edmund Wilson, a Critic more historian than theorist, a Modernist speaking of male Russians, faces off against Judith Butler, a Post-Modernist gender theorist, of French and German influence.  If the differences are profound, profound, perhaps, the match.

Wilson speaks from, and during a time of great American influence and power; confidently he asserts the 96% literary rate of the U.S., how in his country “there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups,” and that “the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.”

Today, the remark about Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn sounds naive; Wilson, the historical critic, is interesting only as a look back into history.

Butler, meanwhile, belongs to those who would change history as she speaks not for “communication between different social groups,” but rather exploding “social groups.”

Gender as a new, fluid identity within the realm of bodily desire is Butler’s focus—politics, history and aesthetics are thus, in Butler, replaced by psychology, a rather narrow psychology—the psychology of the drag queen.  Butler conspicuously fails to mention children as she comes to grips with gender.  The larger world is puzzlingly absent.  If desire is at the heart of heterosexuality, other kinds of desire can never be proven to be anything but a variation of heterosexual desire, and sexual desire can never be proven to be anything but a breeding device, unless we add aesthetics to the equation, and this, too, leads away from Butler.






Is the photograph modernity’s face?




The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bossuet and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.

The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and color. I am prepared to go even further and assert that inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock. The man of genius has sound nerves, while those of the child are weak. With the one, Reason has taken up a considerable position; with the other, Sensibility is almost the whole being. But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.




A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself.  Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardization and mass production. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness.

The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same.

Real life is  becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for the imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.

Those very art forms which are known as classical, such as Mozart’s music, contain objective trends which represent something different to the style which they incarnate. Instead of exposing itself to this failure in which the style of the great work of art has always achieved self-negation, the inferior work has always relied on its similarity with others—on a surrogate identity.  In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute.

No object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged.


Adorno is nothing but Marx for the film age.  The pessimism is a necessary intellectual stimulation—how can we not love, “the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality?” But how can anyone resist the revery of Baudelaire’s more optimistic, “genius is…childhood recovered…?”  Baudelaire’s pull is greater, even as we feel the dismay of being a “victim” of a film, or of—childhood?

Adorno’s fear that art which pulls us in will kill us probably goes back to the idea that hunting deer should take priority over drawing them on the cave wall.  It is always interesting, but finally tedious to mingle primitive fears with technological, economic, and reproductive sophistication.  Adorno’s distinction between telephone (active) and radio (passive) has merits in light of where technology is going today.

Philosophically, we find self-conscious modernism a big fat bore, and it can be downright malevolent sometimes, too.  The pathology of self-consciously modern philosophy is the primary manifestation to any real philosopher.  We see it in Baudelaire’s small-minded attack on the bourgeois love of Titian and Raphael.  My God, what is wrong with people loving Titian and Raphael?

Joni Mitchell recalled to an interviewer that her parents “each owned three records” when she was growing up (and she grew up in the age Adorno is writing about): her father owned three jazz trumpet records (Harry James, etc) and her mother, three classical piano records (Claire de Lune, etc).  People did not have huge record collections back then, but Mitchell found inspiration in her parents’ tiny collection.  Baudelaire looks forward to our over-saturated era with his recommendation that we seek “particular” beauty in numerous “minor” artists, but Baudelaire’s (childhood?) logic is flawed: great artists like Raphael give us more “particular” beauty than any given “minor” artist, and looking at a lot of minor artists does not give us more “particular” beauty—that would be to confuse substance with number.  It is tempting to say, and it’s often said: bring on the particular and give the ‘minor’ artists a chance, too, but when looked at soberly, this is nothing but crass, minor ambition.  We must always beware Raphael-hating.

The whole philosophical aesthetic of modern technology can be summed up by the despair generated when photography, which gives us so much to look at, gives us too much to look at, and instead of celebrating the variety seen and felt, we mourn the fact that everything now looks, and feels, the same.





Suppose someone asks me whether I consider the palace I see before me beautiful. I might reply that I am not fond of things of that sort, made merely to be gaped at. Or I might reply like that Iroquois sachem who said that he liked nothing better in Paris than the eating-houses. I might even go on, as Rousseau would, to rebuke the vanity of the great who spend the people’s sweat on such superfluous things. I might, finally, quite easily convince myself that, if I were on some uninhabited island with no hope of ever again coming among people, and could conjure up such a splendid edifice by a mere wish, I would not even take that much trouble for it, if I already had a sufficiently comfortable hut. The questioner may grant all this and approve of it; but it is not to the point. All he wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the respect in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.


It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production. Then begins the epoch of social revolution.

In considering such transformations a distinction should be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the productive social forces and the relations of production.

Man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities.

The capitalistic mode of production ( essentially the production of surplus-value) produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labor-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labor-power itself.

Kant is all reflection and Marx is all fight, but both exhibit the modern tendency to split the world into two forever divided camps; Kant, its use and its beauty, Marx, its use and its use-value—the latter of which Marx maintains, is experienced by mankind religiously and aesthetically; so finally Kant and Marx are very much the same, ushering in fantastically devised estrangement.

Though Kant might be considered ‘conservative’ and Marx, ‘radical,’ the lynx-eye of true philosophy notes the profound similarity between these two philosophers, both, in many respects, brilliant but deranged producers of woe.

It is difficult to pick a winner between these two deep and similar types of conflict.




Study Greek models night and day.

Whatever advice you give, be brief, so that the teachable mind can take in your words quickly and retain them faithfully.

Whatever you invent for pleasure, let it be near to truth. We don’t want a play to ask credence for anything. The elder citizens chase things off the stage if there’s no substance in them, and the high-spirited youngsters won’t vote for dry poetry.  Combine pleasure with usefulness.

There are some mistakes we forgive. The string doesn’t always give the note that the hand and the mind intended: it often returns a high note when you ask for a low. The bow won’t always hit what it threatens to hit. But when most features of a poem are brilliant, I shan’t be offended by a few blemishes thrown around by carelessness or human negligence. But what then?  If a copyist goes on making the same mistake however much he is warned, he is not forgiven; if a lyre-player always gets the same note wrong, people laugh at him. I’m even angry when Homer nods, though a doze is OK in a long work.

Poetry is like painting. Some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you’re further off.


Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.

Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And Things unknown propos’d as Things forgot:
Without Good Breeding, Truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes Superior Sense belov’d.

Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
And make each Day a Critic on the last.

Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
In every Work regard the Writer’s End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend.

Music resembles Poetry; in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.

Pope (b. 1688) was keenly aware of Psychology before it became a ubiquitous and pedantic school subject in the early 20th century: “Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do; Men must be Taught as if you Taught them Not” is Psychology in a nutshell. Nothing more needs to be understood, for coming at Psychology directly always fails; if great authors teach anything, it is that all Wisdom is profoundly indirect. And yet intention is all—as flexible as Pope is, you will be held to that.

Alexander Pope also earns points by praising Horace, his opponent.

Team Pope really wants to win this thing.

We moderns like to flatter ourselves that we are more easy-going and flexible than our predecessors, but it depends on who one reads; Pope and Horace are not rigid pedants: stand back from this poem/painting, you’ll like it better; don’t hanker after perfection; there are some beauties no method can reach—Pope learned from Horace’s nonchalant wit. And yet the easy-going can have high standards, too, and intimidating terms Genius, Master, and God in Pope’s context serve, with gentleness and suavity, beauties which continue to please.



“Invade your privacy?  I will give you your privacy forever!” –Portrait painter’s plea

Let me paint you.
The valley doesn’t know itself.
You have listened by flowers
When I, bold, told you the dozen
Goings of the sun, and the soreness
In my mind when you are gone.
Both of us are offended by ourselves
In photographs, and when mirrors
Map our sublime faces they fail;
The glass plate destroys the significance
Of longing that stretches in many
Directions far away.
Only my mastery in the painting art,
The valley laying out its perspective
In the singular sun, can allow the mystery
To go home at last, the multiple sufferings
Seeing what is happy and one.
I quickly sketched your nose and told you it was
The best nose, but you would have none of it,
Though there was a moment when your modesty dropped
And I thought perhaps you knew.
Is it possible for you to know how
I saw you once without me being specifically in the picture?
Let the painter satisfy the life no longer here,
And the living, too—vaguely sad, vaguely near.



TRAGEDY is a REPRESENTATION of a COMPLETE ACTION, which has MAGNITUDE, by people ACTING, and not by narration, accomplishing by means of PITY and TERROR the CATHARSIS of such emotions.

Since TRAGEDY is a representation of an action and is enacted by people acting, these people are NECESSARILY OF A CERTAIN SORT according to their CHARACTER and their REASONING. For it is because of these that we say that actions are of a certain sort.



Almost all the FICTIONS OF THE LAST AGE will VANISH, if you DEPRIVE them of a HERMIT and a WOOD, a BATTLE and a SHIPWRECK.

WHY this wild strain of imagination FOUND RECEPTION SO LONG in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while READERS could be procured, the AUTHORS were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice gained some fluency of LANGUAGE, he had no further care than to RETIRE TO HIS CLOSET, LET LOOSE his invention, and HEAT HIS MIND with incredibilities; a book was thus produced WITHOUT fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with LIFE.

The task of our PRESENT writers is very DIFFERENT; it requires, together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that EXPERIENCE which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and ACCURATE OBSERVATION of the LIVING world.

Team Johnson, fearing the disaster suffered by Hume against Plato, picks the strategy of brevity, but really, what chance does Johnson, even with the clever, “Hermit and a Wood, a Battle and a Shipwreck,” have against the banner Aristotle, massing with its “COMPLETE ACTION” and its “CATHARSIS?”

Johnson (b 1709) demonstrates how early the ‘self-consciously-modern’ virus dragged down Letters; this Lament has been around a long, long time: previous ages lacked “accuracy,”  “experience” and “real, observed life,” etc.  We don’t believe a word of it.




The manufacture of the ITEMS OF FURNITURE involves the CRAFTSMAN looking to the TYPE and then making the beds or tables WE USE. The type itself is NOT manufactured by any craftsman. How could it be?

To get hold of A MIRROR and carry it around with you everywhere, you’ll soon be CREATING EVERYTHING.

PAINTER, CARPENTER, and GOD are responsible for THREE different kinds of beds.  God has produced only that ONE REAL BED.

The SAME goes for TRAGIC PLAYWRIGHTS.  REPRESENTATION and TRUTH are a considerable distance apart.

Does HISTORY record that there was any war fought in HOMER’S time whose success depended on his leadership or advice?  No.


The SENTIMENTS of men often DIFFER with regard to BEAUTY, even while their general DISCOURSE is the SAME. There are certain terms in every language, which impart blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the SAME TONGUE, MUST AGREE. But when critics come to PARTICULARS, this seeming UNANIMITY VANISHES.

In SCIENCE, the case is OPPOSITE: the difference among men is there oftener found to lie in GENERALS than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance.

It is natural for us to SEEK a STANDARD OF TASTE, a rule by which various sentiments may be reconciled.

The difference, it is said, is very wide between judgement and sentiment. ALL SENTIMENT IS CORRECT; sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, whenever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the UNDERSTANDING are NOT CORRECT; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard.

One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the REAL BEAUTY, or real deformity, is as FRUITLESS an inquiry as to pretend to ascertain the REAL SWEET OR REAL BITTER.

BUT whoever would assert an equality of genius between OGILBY and MILTON would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he maintained a pond as extensive as the ocean.

It is evident that NONE of the rules of composition are fixed by reasoning a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing these habits and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, EXPERIENCE; nor are they any thing but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please all countries and in all ages.

Many of the BEAUTIES OF POETRY and even of eloquence are founded on FALSEHOOD and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meaning. To check the sallies of the imagination, and to reduce every expression to geometrical truth and EXACTNESS, would be the most contrary to the laws of criticism; because it would produce a work, which by universal experience, has been found the most insipid and DISAGREEABLE.

But though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by GENIUS or OBSERVATION.

The same HOMER who pleased at Athens and Rome, 2,000 years ago, is STILL ADMIRED at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.

Though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet FEW ARE QUALIFIED to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.

We choose our favorite AUTHOR as we do our FRIEND, from a conformity of humor and disposition.

The WANT OF HUMANITY and decency, so conspicuous in the characters drawn by several of the ancient poets, even sometimes by HOMER and the Greek tragedians, diminishes considerably the merit of their noble performances, and gives MODERN authors an advantage over them.

Team Plato decided to be iconic and brief from Book X of the Republic.

Team Hume went with a more discursive strategy from On the Standard of Taste, but we see how this backfires, as Hume, trying to play every side of each argument, ends up contradicting himself.



“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady



1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume


1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx


1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno


1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler


“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.


Uhhh…excuse me…ahem….can I ask just one more question?

As enlightened as we know ourselves to be, we may as well admit it: the Left hurts poetry.  (Doesn’t perfectionism always let us down?)

But does the Left really hurt poetry?

Let’s begin with ideology.

Ideology turns poetry into rhetoric, but this is really not the issue, for if ideology presents bias, so does love, and the lyric and love can walk hand in hand.

We might say Modernism has been unkind to romantic love and Romantic poetry, (when is the last time you heard a contemporary poet praise Byron?) that hard-headed Modernism has sought to escape the feverish, the romantic, the emotionality of bias, and this might be true, but rhetoric and ideology of all kinds has not only persisted, but expanded, in poetic expression in the modern era.

The great drawback, one might say, is that ideology requires explanation, and poetry has less time than prose for explanations.

But this, too, is a thin objection, for poetry, and art in general, is perfectly capable of explaining things; we just expect it to do so with greater art or greater concision.

If Marxism, or Leftism, is a legitimate subject, or a legitimate philosophy, for mankind, and for the poet, why shouldn’t it work as material for poetry?

Before the whole matter is settled, however, we turn back, almost nonchalantly, like Columbo, for one more small clarification.

Poetry is no longer a popular art form; it merely breathes on life support in college, and even then, in its fragile state, in forms most people no longer recognize as poetry.

And this couldn’t make the Marxist poet, or critic, any happier.

The reason for this is quite simple: The Leftist equates the good of popularity with the evil of “market forces,” and so any chance for poetry’s mass appeal is killed in the cradle by those who believe bohemian martyrdom is preferable to bourgeois triumph: obscurity is preferable even to democracy, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Marxism therefore, condemns poetry to appeal to the few.

Leftism hurts poetry, but it has nothing to do with ideology.  It has nothing to do with Leftism as a set of ideas or beliefs.

The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to apply the term “market” (a bad) to what is basically poetry’s audience (a necessity).

Poetry has been a Leftist activity ever since “make it new” (ironically popularized by a fascist).  Modernism, or as it was once called, Futurism, makes change paramount, and since the progressive (in terms of politics) also makes change paramount—for different reasons, perhaps—change, whether driven by right-wing Futurism or left-wing Progressive-ism has become the ruling animus of poetry.

Poetry has defaulted heavily to Leftism ever since WW II found the “make it new” poet disgraced, and on the losing side.  But almost as proof that change is the real issue, (not Left or Right) Pound is still worshiped as a Modernist poet—since change for its own sake is the true high god.

The market won, Pound lost, and poetry, progressive not only in politics, but in everything, forces change as the constant issue.

Desire for change inevitably finds opposition in whatever resists change, even if what resists change is democratic, or is grounded in common sense.

Poetry itself has no opinion, one way or the other, on change, nor do poetry’s origins have anything to do with change, per se.

The war for change being fought by progressives takes place outside of poetry’s walls—and this is not an anti-progressive statement, but merely a matter-of-fact one.

When the market becomes the enemy, all that is democratic and popular also, in quiet and hidden ways, then becomes the enemy, too.

Poetry can be anything it wants, and it can be a shouting match if it wants to be, and it can be a hectoring force ushering in change for all the standard and visible causes: race, women, gays, the poor, and the environment.  As we pointed out above, the issues themselves are not the issue.

But just as Marxism hinders poetry by making popular appeal a bad thing, so do all sorts of ideological issues—which feature ‘struggle for change,’ for these have the tendency to make poetry renounce pleasure, immediacy, and accessibility for things so complex that rhetoric itself breaks apart in attempting to comprehend it.

Again, it is not the issues, nor the ideology, nor the complexities themselves which are a bad thing; the damage to poetry is done indirectly by forces or circumstances which inherently foster obscurity—that makes a democratic art (whatever kind of art that might be) impossible.

There is no going back.  We don’t think poetry can simply drop these issues, or should.  Poets will just have to figure out ways to be true to their ideals while working harder to be popular.

But just to give one example of how complex the problem has become:

Eileen Myles, the lesbian poet, on twitter, attacked the film about two young lesbian lovers, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” calling it a “hate crime” against lesbians, and the resulting conversation by lesbian poets, mostly supporting Myles’ remarks, featured a great deal of graphic sexuality, along with how a lesbian relationship does or does not resemble, favorably or unfavorably, a heterosexual relationship.  Eileen Myles is politically astute, if nothing else, and one could easily call a discussion like this political, and most poets writing on this subject, no matter how sexually frank, would still think of themselves as making “progressive” contributions of a political nature to society at large.  But it was really difficult to tell, for example, what Myles’ political objections to the movie were, besides a feeling she had that it did not depict the lesbian lifestyle as a universally happy one.  But what “lifestyle” is universally happy?

The question here is not that ‘lesbian sex’ will never be a popular, or a popular topic for poetry; the only case we are making here is that we should not, on Marxist principles, or any other principles, condemn popularity for its own sake; for a democracy, after all, resides in the popular will.

But homosexuality, as a “progressive” topic, does have its pitfalls; it will lead us into obscurity and away from the popular taste, and will have a great deal of trouble in making itself accessible and meaningful, in either a political or an aesthetic manner.  Homosexuality, looked at aesthetically, inevitably becomes Rabelaisian, as any sexuality would, whether or not the topic is “progressive,” or not.

And now Columbo needs to make one more little point of clarification, if possible…

What sort of political influence does poetry have?  It has none. 

Pound’s broadcasts from Italy in support of the Axis powers during the war were of little consequence, according to Pound apologists.

The right-wing character of Eliot/Pound Modernism and Southern Agrarian/New Critic Modernism dominated poetry in the first half of the century; some like to point to Robert Lowell, who was influenced by Ransom and Tate, as an important Leftist: Lowell opposed the Vietnam War—and Lowell also, in a personal way, reconciled highbrow, “cooked” poetry with the “raw” poetry of the Beats, but this was not seriously on the nation’s radar screen, and truly, the confessional-ism of poets like Lowell and Ginsberg was more Modernism swerving back toward the excitement of Romanticism than anything political.

So there you have it.  Poetry, as a study and a practice, right now in the United States, may be Leftist, but Leftism in poetry is actually of very little consequence, except in the manner outlined above, and from that very important standpoint, Leftism has hurt poetry.

Perhaps the whole question lies closer to the issue of the sacred versus the secular, and poetry finally residing closer to the former as an art form—but that discussion is for a future time.

We point out this issue with Leftism, not as any form of censorship—but only as a warning, and a challenge.


We quote at some length, in this Scarriet piece, the last major work of America’s major author, Edgar Poe; like the Commedia of Dante or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Poe’s Eureka presents genius on a scale that cannot be glimpsed at once, but reveals itself to patient wonder. But the wonder is that even in glimpses the genius is apparent.

Poe, the inventor of science fiction, detective fiction and code-breaking that helped the allies win World War Two, gives us, in Eureka, a work of science: the universe of stars explained. The author of Eureka reasons in a manner admirable for its unprecedented resourcefulness: the lock will come undone, no matter what, is the chief dynamic on display.

We present this portion of Poe’s Eureka not as a piece for passive admiration (even though our admiration is extreme) but as an exercise for the mind, and as a question: regarding the universe, does Poe get away with too much, or has he solved the secret?

Poe bumps up against three absolutes, which few would dare to touch, and destroys them all—and only because, as his poetic sense recognizes, he is talking about the origin and behavior of the universe.

1. Infinity

2. Newton’s First Law of Motion

3. Axiomatic principle

To most, simply reading the excerpt of Poe’s Eureka below will be sufficient to comprehend the profundity of Poe’s extraordinary gambit in dealing with 1, 2, and 3 above.

We shall briefly explain for  others the inevitable path Poe takes in his remarkably simple, yet profound thesis, so that the powerful force of his genius, applied to the problem of understanding the universe, may be truly felt.

For Poe, the universe is finite, and begins as one particle, and because it is one, it has no relation.

When this one universe splits as the ‘big bang,’ it creates matter (relation) and all the subsequent “principles,” the chief and overriding principle the law of gravity, the force of all matter attempting to return to its original perfection (with light, the resistant friction of this return).

The universe, in its original perfect state, features no relation, therefore all principles and axioms at this point are in abeyance.

As Poe points out, an axiom is nothing more than “obviousness of relation” and so here Poe’s original unparticled particle trumps, in its true unity of existence, all principles and axioms—which are subsequent realities growing out of the one axiomatic principle, superior to all others—the ultimate beginning, the one particle with no relation.  Does this allow Poe ‘to get away with shit,’ or, as Poe himself argues, does this guide him, inductively and deductively, to the secret of the universe?

Poe was not the first to posit the universe as “one,” but in Eureka, Poe scrutinized the idea of one universe intensely and radically, so that one, in a material, and not merely an abstract sense, really is one, that is, blind to all axiomatic thought (and incapable of being infinite) so that the scientist, if not the poet, is absolutely startled as Poe’s actual, finite universe emerges into the light of day as a product of an inevitable ‘big bang,’ Poe having, in fact, discovered the ‘big bang.” Since Einstein admitted to having read and admired Eureka, we may possibly infer that Edgar Allan Poe, the poet, (a few copies of Eureka having quietly fallen into the right hands) invented modern physics itself.

Now we present Poe in his own words, from the middle portion of Eureka.  The force and clarity of his rhetoric will be felt at once by all:

Now, Rëaction, as far as we know anything of it, is Action conversed. The general principle of Gravity being, in the first place, understood as the rëaction of an act — as the expression of a desire on the part of Matter, while existing in a state of diffusion, to return into the Unity whence it was diffused; and, in the second place, the mind being called on to determine the character of the desire — the manner in which it would, naturally, be manifested; in other words, being called on to conceive a probable law, or modus operandi, for the return; could not well help arriving at the conclusion that this law of return would be precisely the converse of the law of departure. That such would be the case, any one, at least, would be abundantly justified in taking for granted, until such time as some person should suggest something like a plausible reason why it should not be the case — until such period as a law of return shall be imagined which the intellect can consider as preferable.

Matter, then, radiated into space with a force varying as the squares of the distances, might, à priori, be supposed to return towards its centre of radiation with a force varying inversely as the squares of the distances: and I have already shown* that any principle which will explain why the atoms should tend, according to any law, to the general centre, must be admitted as satisfactorily explaining, at the same time, why, according to the same law, they should tend each to each. For, in fact, the tendency to the general centre is not to a centre as such, but because of its being a point in tending towards which each atom tends ­ most directly to its real and essential centre, Unity — the absolute and final Union of all.

The consideration here involved presents to my own mind no embarrassment whatever — but this fact does not blind me to the possibility of its being obscure to those who may have been less in the habit of dealing with abstractions: — and, on the whole, it may be as well to look at the matter from one or two other points of view.

The absolute, irrelative particle primarily created by the Volition of God, must have been in a condition of positive normality, or rightfulness — for wrongfulness implies relation. Right is positive; wrong is negative — is merely the negation of right; as cold is the negation of heat — darkness of light. That a thing may be wrong, it is necessary that there be some other thing in relation to which it is wrong — some condition which it fails to satisfy; some law which it violates; some being whom it aggrieves. If there be no such being, law, or condition, in respect to which the thing is wrong — and, still more especially, if no beings, laws, or conditions exist at all — then the thing cannot be wrong and consequently must be right.

Any deviation from normality involves a tendency to return into it. A difference from the normal — from the right — from the just — can be understood as effected only by the overcoming a difficulty; and if the force which overcomes the difficulty be not infinitely continued, the ineradicable tendency to return will at length be permitted to act for its own satisfaction. On withdrawal of the force, the tendency acts. This is the principle of rëaction as the inevitable consequence of finite action. Employing a phraseology of which the seeming ­ affectation will be pardoned for its expressiveness, we may say that Rëaction is the return from the condition of as it is and ought not to be into the condition of as it was, originally, and therefore ought to be; — and let me add here that the absolute force of Rëaction would no doubt be always found in direct proportion with the reality — the truth — the absoluteness — of the originality — if ever it were possible to measure this latter: — and, consequently, the greatest of all conceivable rëactions must be that manifested in the tendency which we now discuss — the tendency to return into the absolutely original — into the supremely primitive. Gravity, then, must be the strongest of forces — an idea reached à priori and abundantly confirmed by induction. What use I make of the idea, will be seen in the sequel.

The atoms, now, having been diffused from their normal condition of Unity, seek to return to — what? Not to any particular point, certainly; for it is clear that if, on the diffusion, the whole Universe of matter had been projected, collectively, to a distance from the point of radiation, the atomic tendency to the general centre of the sphere would not have been disturbed in the least; the atoms would not have sought the point in absolute space from which they were originally impelled. It is merely the condition, and not the point or locality at which this condition took its rise, that these atoms seek to re-establish; — it is merely that condition which is their normality, that they desire. “But they seek a centre,” it will be said, “and a centre is a point.” True; but they seek this point not in its character of point — (for, were the whole sphere moved from its position, they would seek, equally, the centre; ­ and the centre then would be a new point) — but because it so happens, on account of the form in which they collectively exist — (that of the sphere) — that only through the point in question — the sphere’s centre — they can attain their true object, Unity. In the direction of the centre each atom perceives more atoms than in any other direction. Each atom is impelled towards the centre because along the straight line joining it and the centre and passing on to the surface beyond, there lie a greater number of atoms than along any other straight line joining it, the atom, with any point of the sphere — a greater number of objects that seek it, the individual atom — a greater number of tendencies to Unity — a greater number of satisfactions for its own tendency to Unity — in a word, because in the direction of the centre lies the utmost possibility of satisfaction, generally, for its own individual appetite. To be brief, the condition, Unity, is all that is really sought; and if the atoms seem to seek the centre of the sphere, it is only impliedly — through implication — because such centre happens to imply, to include, or to involve, the only essential centre, Unity. But on account of this implication or involution, there is no possibility of practically separating the tendency to Unity in the abstract, from the tendency to the concrete centre. Thus the tendency of the atoms to the general centre is, to all practical intents and for all logical purposes, the tendency each to each; and the tendency each to each is the tendency to the centre; and the one tendency may be assumed as the other; whatever will apply to the one must be thoroughly applicable to the other; and, in conclusion, whatever principle will satisfactorily explain the one, cannot be questioned as an explanation of the other. ­

In looking carefully around me for rational objection to what I have advanced, I am able to discover nothing; — but of that class of objections usually urged by the doubters for Doubt’s sake, I very readily perceive three; and proceed to dispose of them in order.

It may be said, first: “That the proof that the force of radiation (in the case described) is directly proportional with the squares of the distances, depends on an unwarranted assumption — that of the number of atoms in each stratum being the measure of the force with which they are emitted.”

I reply, not only that I am warranted in such assumption, but that I should be utterly unwarranted in any other. What I assume is, simply, that an effect is the measure of its cause — that every exercise of the Divine Will will be proportional with that which demands the exertion — that the means of Omnipotence, or of Omniscience, will be exactly adapted to its purposes. Neither can a deficiency nor an excess of cause bring to pass any effect. Had the force which radiated any stratum to its position, been either more or less than was needed for the purpose — that is to say, not directly proportional with the purpose — then to its position that stratum could not have been radiated. Had the force which, with a view to general equability of distribution, emitted the proper number of atoms for each stratum, been not directly proportional with the number, then the number would not have been the number demanded for the equable distribution.

The second supposable objection is somewhat better entitled to an answer. ­

It is an admitted principle in Dynamics that every body, on receiving an impulse, or disposition to move, will move onward in a straight line, in the direction imparted by the impelling force, until deflected, or stopped, by some other force. How then, it may be asked, is my first or external stratum of atoms to be understood as discontinuing their movement at the surface of the imaginary glass sphere, when no second force, of more than an imaginary character, appears, to account for the discontinuance?

I reply that the objection, in this case, actually does arise out of “an unwarranted assumption” — on the part of the objector — the assumption of a principle, in Dynamics, at an epoch when no “principles,” in anything, exist: — I use the word “principle,” of course, in the objector’s understanding of the word.

“In the beginning” we can admit — indeed we can comprehend — but one First Cause — the truly ultimate Principle — the Volition of God. The primary act — that of Radiation from Unity — must have been independent of all that which the world now calls “principle” — because all that we so designate is but a consequence of the rëaction of that primary act: — I say “primary” act; for the creation of the absolute material Particle is more properly to be regarded as a conception than as an “act” in the ordinary meaning of the term. Thus, we must regard the primary act as an act for the establishment of what we now call “principles.” But this primary act itself is to be considered as continuous Volition. The Thought of God is to be understood as originating the Diffusion — as proceeding with it — as regulating it — and, finally, as being ­ withdrawn from it on its completion. Then commences Rëaction, and through Rëaction, “Principle,” as we employ the word. It will be advisable, however, to limit the application of this word to the two immediate results of the discontinuance of the Divine Volition — that is, to the two agents, Attraction and Repulsion. Every other Natural agent depends, either more or less immediately, on these two, and therefore would be more conveniently designated as sub-principle.

It may be objected, thirdly, that, in general, the peculiar mode of distribution which I have suggested for the atoms, is “an hypothesis and nothing more.”

Now, I am aware that the word “hypothesis” is a ponderous sledge-hammer, grasped immediately, if not lifted, by all very diminutive thinkers, on the first appearance of any proposition wearing, in any particular, the garb of a theory. But “hypothesis” cannot be wielded here to any good purpose, even by those who succeed in lifting it — little men or great.

I maintain, first, that only in the mode described is it conceivable that Matter could have been diffused so as to fulfil at once the conditions of radiation and of generally equable distribution. I maintain, secondly, that these conditions themselves have been imposed upon me, as necessities, in a train of ratiocination as rigorously logical as that which establishes any demonstration in Euclid; and I maintain, thirdly, that even if the charge of “hypothesis” were as fully sustained as it is, in fact, unsustained and untenable, still the validity and indisputability of my result would not, even in the slightest particular, be disturbed.

To explain: — The Newtonian Gravity — a law of Nature — a law whose existence as such no one out of Bedlam questions — a law whose admission as such enables us to account for nine-tenths of the Universal phænomena — a law which, merely because it does so enable us to account for these phænomena, we are perfectly willing, without reference to any other considerations, to admit, and cannot help admitting, as a law — a law, nevertheless, of which neither the principle nor the modus operandi of the principle, has ever yet been traced by the human analysis — a law, in short, which, neither in its detail nor in its generality, has been found susceptible of explanation at all — is at length seen to be at every point thoroughly explicable, provided we only yield our assent to —— what? To an hypothesis? Why, if an hypothesis — if the merest hypothesis — if an hypothesis for whose assumption — as in the case of that pure hypothesis the Newtonian law itself — no shadow of à priori reason could be assigned — if an hypothesis, even so absolute as all this implies, would enable us to perceive a principle for the Newtonian law — would enable us to understand as satisfied, conditions so miraculously — so ineffably complex and seemingly irreconcileable as those involved in the relations of which Gravity tells us, — what rational being could so expose his fatuity as to call even this absolute hypothesis an hypothesis any longer — unless, indeed, he were to persist in so calling it, with the understanding that he did so, simply for the sake of consistency in words?

But what is the true state of our present case? What is the fact? Not only that it is not an hypothesis which ­ we are required to adopt, in order to admit the principle at issue explained, but that it is a logical conclusion which we are requested not to adopt if we can avoid it — which we are simply invited to deny if we can: — a conclusion of so accurate a logicality that to dispute it would be the effort — to doubt its validity beyond our power: — a conclusion from which we see no mode of escape, turn as we will; a result which confronts us either at the end of an inductive journey from the phænomena of the very Law discussed, or at the close of a deductive career from the most rigorously simple of all conceivable assumptions — the assumption, in a word, of Simplicity itself.

And if here, it be urged, that although my starting-point is, as I assert, the assumption of absolute Simplicity, yet Simplicity, considered merely in itself, is no axiom; and that only deductions from axioms are indisputable — it is thus that I reply:

Every other science than Logic is the science of certain concrete relations. Arithmetic, for example, is the science of the relations of number — Geometry, of the relations of form — Mathematics in general, of the relations of quantity in general — of whatever can be increased or diminished. Logic, however, is the science of Relation in the abstract — of absolute Relation — of Relation considered solely in itself. An axiom in any particular science other than Logic is, thus, merely a proposition announcing certain concrete relations which seem to be too obvious for dispute — as when we say, for instance, that the whole is greater than its part: — and, thus again, the principle of the Logical axiom — in other words, of an axiom in the abstract — is, ­ simply, obviousness of relation. Now, it is clear, not only that what is obvious to one mind may not be obvious to another, but that what is obvious to one mind at one epoch, may be anything but obvious, at another epoch, to the same mind. It is clear, moreover, that what, to-day, is obvious even to the majority of mankind, or to the majority of the best intellects of mankind, may to-morrow be, to either majority, more or less obvious, or in no respect obvious at all. It is seen, then, that the axiomatic principle itself is susceptible of variation, and of course that axioms are susceptible of similar change. Being mutable, the “truths” which grow out of them are necessarily mutable too; or, in other words, are never to be positively depended on as truths at all — since Truth and Immutability are one.

It will now be readily understood that no axiomatic idea — no idea founded in the fluctuating principle, obviousness of relation — can possibly be so secure — so reliable a basis for any structure erected by the Reason, as that idea — (whatever it is, wherever we can find it, or if it be practicable to find it anywhere) — which is irrelative altogether — which not only presents to the understanding no obviousness of relation, either greater or less, to be considered, but subjects the intellect, not in the slightest degree, to the necessity of even looking at any relation at all. If such an idea be not what we too heedlessly term “an axiom,” it is at least preferable, as a logical basis, to any axiom ever propounded, or to all imaginable axioms combined: — and such, precisely, is the idea with which my deductive process, so thoroughly corroborated by induction, commences. My Particle Proper is but Absolute Irrelation.

To sum up ­ what has been here advanced: — As a starting point I have taken it for granted, simply, that the Beginning had nothing behind it or before it — that it was a Beginning in fact — that it was a Beginning and nothing different from a Beginning — in short that this Beginning was —— that which it was. If this be a “mere assumption,” then a “mere assumption” let it be.

To conclude this branch of the subject: — I am fully warranted in announcing that the Law which call Gravity exists on account of Matter’s having been irradiated, at its origin, atomically, into a limited* sphere of Space, from one, individual, unconditional, irrelative, and absolute Particle Proper, by the sole process in which it was possible to satisfy, at the same time, the two conditions, radiation and equable distribution throughout the sphere — that is to say, by a force varying in direct proportion with the squares of the distances between the Radiated atoms, respectively, and the Particular centre of Radiation.

I have already given my reasons for presuming Matter to have been diffused by a determinate rather than by a continuous or infinitely continued force. Supposing a continuous force, we should be unable, in the first place, to comprehend a rëaction at all; and we should be required, in the second place, to entertain the impossible conception of an infinite extension of Matter. Not to dwell upon the impossibility of the conception, the infinite extension of Matter is an idea which, if not positively disproved, ­ is at least not in any respect warranted by telescopic observation of the stars — a point to be explained more fully hereafter; and this empirical reason for believing in the original finity of Matter is unempirically confirmed. For example: — Admitting, for the moment, the possibility of understanding Space as filled with the radiated atoms — that is to say, admitting, as well as we can, for argument’s sake, that the succession of the atoms had absolutely no end — then it is clear, that, even when the Volition of God had been withdrawn from them, and thus the tendency to return into Unity permitted (abstractly) to be satisfied, this permission would have been nugatory and invalid — practically valueless and of no effect whatever. No Rëaction could have taken place; no movement toward Unity could have been made; no Law of Gravity could have obtained.

To explain: — Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity: — or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction — it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counter-balancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus ­ the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter — no stars — no worlds — nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.

With the understanding of a sphere of atoms, however, we perceive, at once, a satisfiable tendency to union. The general result of the tendency each to each, being a tendency of all to the centre, the general process of condensation, or approximation, commences immediately, by a common and simultaneous movement, on withdrawal of the Divine Volition; the individual approximations, or cöalescences — of atom with atom, being subject to almost infinite variations of time, degree, and condition, on account of the excessive multiplicity of relation, arising from the differences of form assumed as characterizing the atoms at the moment of their quitting the Particle Proper; as well as from the subsequent particular inequidistance, each from each.

What I wish to impress upon the reader is the certainty of there arising, at once, (on withdrawal of the diffusive force, or Divine Volition,) out of the condition of the atoms as described, at innumerable points throughout the Universal sphere, innumerable agglomerations, characterized by innumerable specific differences of form, size, essential nature, and distance each from each. The development of Repulsion (Electricity) must have commenced, of course, ­ with the very earliest particular efforts at Unity, and must have proceeded constantly in the ratio of Cöalescence — that is to say, in that of Condensation, or, again, of Heterogeneity.

Thus the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion — the Material and the Spiritual — accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus The Body and The Soul walk hand in hand.


Where is your sighing lullaby?
Last night strings
Played the mystic tune.
Usually desire sings
The words beneath the mystic moon.

The tempo is usually slow,
Like flames running across a stream,
The flames not certain which way to go,
Like perfume drifting through a dream,
A dream with dreams by you and I.

The words were immediate, not a test;
We listened and listened, and got no rest;
You were stranger, lover, and guest,
Someone I dreamed to know
Even as I moved by your elbow
And heard the sigh in your sigh.

The earthly tones conveyed unearthliness;
This perfume was one of your own;
A love was melodiously confessed—
You and I roaming to a mystic home
Where dripping love is welcome
And love in love is best.


Doesn’t it all finally come down to this?

Is your fiction a lie, or is it art?

If fiction is a mere lie,  you have no right to call it art, and if you do, you and your art are a sham.  Sorry.

If your fiction is not a lie, then it is not fiction, but truth, and even here, your art, your fiction, is a lie and a sham—because all you are doing is telling the truth, or, not lying, not producing fiction, producing fact, not art.  Sorry, again.

So art must be a lie, but when does that lie stop being a sham?

When does a lie become what we have come to praise as art?

First we must ask: why is a lie a bad thing?  Because it deceives.  So the fiction writer (or poet) does not lie, even though he lies, because the reader knows he is lying.  There is no deception.

Unless, unless…we cry when we read a poem: then our feelings have been deceived.  We talk of honest feeling, sincere feeling, as a good.

So here we see art deceiving our feelings.  But if feelings respond to a sentimental message, has deception really occurred?  Who, or what, has been deceived, when a poem or a movie makes us cry?  Our feelings have been deceived, but have we been deceived?  We still know the poem is a lie, even as it makes us cry.  So no real deception has occurred.

Let’s look at it this way: if the poet tells the truth, and the reader believes it is a lie, the truth is a lie, for the reader, not just the reader’s feelings, has been deceived.

So it isn’t an issue at all of truth or lies, but deception.

We, as readers of fiction, do not—cannot—know the lies of fiction as truth; what really happens is that all fiction is a mixture of lies and truth, and the truth is what we truly understand.

If we are not deceived, there is no lie.

No reader can be deceived by the truth, for truth, by its nature, cannot deceive; and therefore no reader ever believes, or can believe, that fiction worth reading is a lie.  Fiction always moves us with its truth; it moves us when it does not deceive us; and therefore when fiction is art, when fiction is valid and good and successful, it succeeds entirely as truth.

And yet…we all know that an explanation, leaving out one small detail, can serve an entirely different purpose, that one detail taken away can turn a truth into a lie.  How then, can the mixture of lies and truth, then, equal truth for the reader of fiction?

The answer to this dilemma lies in the difference between life and fiction.  Life contains lies and truth.  Fiction contains nothing that can be called either lies or truth.

Life is open-ended and interested.   Fiction is closed and disinterested.  A lie in life has real consequences.  A lie in fiction has none.  If a lie in fiction has no consequences, it does not deceive. If it does not deceive, it must be true, or, at least have no lies.  The mixture of lies and truth in fiction produces something which cannot deceive the reader, because the reader is assuming the fiction is not true.  But we care only about truth and are able to extract it from the fiction.  The truth-within-the-fiction is what the reader is actually reading, actually knowing.  Life presents truth and lies as either-or.  Fiction presents truth and lies as one-within-the-other.

In fiction, it is not that it doesn’t matter if it’s a lie, or a truth.  It’s just that lies or truth, as an either-or, cannot exist in fiction.  Fiction, as fiction, does not deceive. The feeling that life is constantly deceiving us makes us run to fiction—which cannot deceive us.  If fiction affects our feelings, we rejoice in feeling superior to our mere feelings, which are deceived, for the failure of the feelings to detect the truth only reaffirms that we are not deceived.

The extraction of truth from lies is where the “art” of fiction is truly located.

The “art” of a good detective is the same as the “art” of good fiction—as it’s read, or written.    The “art” of a “good” detective is necessary—when the criminal is “good.”  The writing and reading of good fiction, likewise, depend on one another.

Detection is the key.

Plato was correct.  We argue with Socrates in vain.

Fiction is bad, and is always bad.  Good fiction does not succeed because of its fiction, but because of its truth.  And the extraction or detection of that truth is the art of fiction.

The great writer of fiction disrupts the fictional reading of fiction by the reader who is helplessly running away from life and its deceptions to the drug of fiction, and makes the detection and the extraction of truth the attribute that matters.

We may extract the truth by our response to beauty.  We may extract the truth by looking beyond the work to ourselves, or to implications outside the work.  It is not for us to say how the truth is extracted, only that the chief importance lies in the faculty of detection itself.

The American author who elevated Criticism, discovered the Big Bang, was a short fiction master, a code-breaker, invented the unreliable narrator, detective fiction, science fiction, and invented modern humor, besides, made it a paramount concern of his to imply that his fiction was not fiction at all.  The “inventor of modern humor” may seem a stretch, since we are talking of Edgar Allan Poe, but let us quote from one of his more obscure tales, “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.”  We make an example of this tale for the way it presents the relationship between truth and fiction.

The premise is simple: Poe makes use of the narrative device which frames the Arabian Nights:

It will be remembered, that, in the usual version of the tales, a certain monarch, having good cause to be jealous of his queen, not only puts her to death, but makes a vow, by his beard and the prophet, to espouse each night the most beautiful maiden in his dominions, and the next morning to deliver her up to the executioner.

Having fulfilled this vow for many years to the letter, and with a religious punctuality and method that conferred great credit upon him as a man of devout feelings and excellent sense, he was interrupted one afternoon (no doubt at his prayers) by a visit from his grand vizier, to whose daughter, it appears, there had occurred an idea.

Her name was Scheherazade, and her idea was, that she would either redeem the land from the depopulating tax upon its beauty, or perish, after the approved fashion of all heroines, in the attempt.

The twist Poe adds is equally simple: after her life is saved, he has Scheherazade tell one more tale, based on amazing facts of real life; the king, finding the truth too absurd to believe, has her killed, then, after all.

Scheherazade merely refers to modern scientists and engineers as “magicians” and the king, listening to it as a story, simply cannot swallow it.

“ ‘Another of these magicians, by means of a fluid that nobody ever yet saw, could make the corpses of his friends brandish their arms, kick out their legs, fight, or even get up and dance at his will. Another had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the earth to the other. Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad — or indeed at any distance whatsoever. Another commanded the lightning to come down to him out of the heavens, and it came at his call; and served him for a plaything when it came. Another took two loud sounds and out of them made a silence. Another constructed a deep darkness out of two brilliant lights. Another made ice in a red-hot furnace. Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did. Another took this luminary with the moon and the planets, and having first weighed them with scrupulous accuracy, probed into their depths and found out the solidity of the substance of which they were made…

“Preposterous!” said the king.

We love this reference to photography: “Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did.”

Aristotle: “Not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.”

Poe affixes the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction” to the head of his Scheherezade tale.

Again, from Aristotle’s Poetics: “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”

When it comes to truth being “stranger,” in the Aristotelian formula, “strange” is “improbable possible.”   But “directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did” seems “probable impossible,” too.

Science would make it clear to the ancient caliph how photography works, how the “sun can paint a portrait.”

But in the fiction, the “magician” directs the sun to paint his portrait, which is a “probable impossible,” a “requirement of art” for Aristotle.   But it fails for Poe’s Scheherezade; the king finds it “improbable,” and thus rejects it.  The joke, of course, is that Poe knows—and the reader may know—or does know, when he consults the footnotes—that the science exists, and therefore it is not only probable and possible; it is. 


As we lie in that bed of pleasure,
With you and your curiosity nearby,
We offer you, with a limp, extended arm, the treasure
That fell from our brain—a brain that thinks like a thinking eye,
Bringing the warm philosophy, which courses
Through our blood, as if butterflies gave birth to horses.

Relax by the vortex of the infinite,

Under its shady walls, come here and sit,
Let’s focus on our reveries…never mind the rest of it…

Dodge every debate, controversy, and sorrow.
Before you awoke, no science or art could compete with your dream.
Each lazy drop, sliding on vines, is lost in the lazy stream.
Our indulgent today will not be better tomorrow.

The question is not God, but infinity;
All—with enough time and space—will happen—
So Epicurus, two thousand years ago,
Trampled Aristotle, Plato, and all religion—
A drunken universe pours infinite wine,
Indifference to humans stamps the divine,
A tickling feather is better than wisdom,
There is nothing to do and nothing to know,
Worlds and worlds, a wind of infinite atoms, no sign
Of God, law, love, purpose, knowledge, design
More than shapes glimpsed in a melting snow.

But alas, infinity was disproved by Edgar Allan Poe,
Who claimed it was only a word. Infinite space,
Infinite time, infinite stars, would make the night’s face
Blazing white with the light of infinite stars—
Further: orbs, gravity, relation, movement, could not exist
If the process of attraction stretched on forever.
Infinity is not the wall, but our mind, on infinity, thinking.
Few venture into infinity’s sea without sinking
A little sadly, into that Epicurean nap:
The One World ignored, even as we sleep in its lap.

Infinity, that false God, that false Epicurean dream,
Hides our fate and purpose, hides the true, one God,
Volition: big bang, gravity’s return to all,
From which none can hide, no matter how clever, or small.
It’s true that belief in simplicity is odd,
But faith in infinity takes a leap that’s greater—
One world, simply made, tempts, sooner, or later.

Some object to simple certainty, fearing tyrants
Are those who feel certain.  But the rants
And cruelties of tyrants
Spring from uncertainty and confusion.
Certainty of tyrants, like the Epicurean dream, is certainty based on illusion.

This bed is no accident, and neither you, nor I,
No accident beneath the one sky
That we can plant our flag in; if we die,
The moment and the reason were planned
By a soul that lives on, even if unmanned.

Every pleasure and pain we feel
Is by the will of our soul already willed, already real.

We played the trick on our soul already
Even as we drift, doubtful, unsteady,
Pushed by what seems indifferent chance,
Intoxicated in the intoxicated dance,
Flying through a universe alone,
Hurt by little particles of stone,
Electro-magnetic light in our eye,
Softened beneath a softening sky.

This is what you always knew
Would happen, just as it happens to you,
And if beauty is your last resort,
Or a tangle of oddities, or sport,
Drift above the dance all the while.
Two souls above one world can smile.

The world is self-punishing; ache not for justice.
Seek to find, not find advice.
Things are mostly OK now.
Be patient. Don’t try to wow.
Don’t be a sheep.
Argue to make your listeners weep.
Let the science tell you: trees are fed by CO2.
The sky is big—big enough for me and you.
Heterosexuals made the world, so why are they afraid of gays?
Writing is good, like food or gym, so why resent the MFAs?
The trouble isn’t what the trouble is, but that it stays,
Work isn’t real work, unless it’s work that plays.

Give me your hand, this poem is almost done.

We’ll watch the end of everything in this disappearing sun.

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