Archives for posts with tag: the canon

Like Tiresias, who lived both as a man and a woman, I have lived two ways. First, as a student taught that there was a canon, and that it had no women or people of color in it. There were no Godless Asians, either, preaching that there is no prime mover, since neither women nor people of color nor Godless Asians can read or write. Second, I have lived as a grownup observing from afar the Afro pomo homo — what do they call it? — project of beating the dead white men to death.

I can see the face of Dr. Baizer, as we speak, making eye contact with me, the lone female in the seminar, in 1968, to announce that Jane Austen, the one female of the entire canon, was a minor and miniaturist writer, as she did not write about war. Twenty-five years later Eddie Said said, au contraire, Jane Austen is the very billy club with which British imperialists cold-cocked smart little Palestinian boys like Eddie, being eddimicated at the American School and Victoria College in Cairo ca. 1947-51.

There is a long argument somewhere, in one of the literary journals I used to read — the TLS, the LRB, the NYRB — a long and persuasive discussion about why, for example, Islamic culture failed to produce capitalism, the Protestant reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the anomalous glories of western civ. It was pretty interesting, and as I recall, its rhetorical stasis point was, no Aristotle. No scientific method based on thesis, antithesis, synthesis. At some point, Islamic science and mathematics — which as you will recall, invented the numbers you use and astronomy and medieval medicine — stopped competing with the argumentative Greeks’ notion that things have causes and effects, and the disputatious rhetoric of scientific method could cut these out of the morass of superstition, false witness, false evidence, to produce replicable results. One old genocide scholar, pondering the expulsion from Spain of the Moors and the Jews by Isabella la Catolica in 1492 — the end of the Caliphate all the Islamists are trying to re-establish —  pointedly noted that no academic institution of any accomplishment had been established in Spain since. One wonders if the Islamists’ implicit argument is true, that progressive Islamic culture, like the Spanish, also ended with the Caliphate.

No Aristotle? Don’t seem to have harmed the Chinese none. Chinese medicine, based on chi and no prime mover and no scientific method, is marvelously diagnostic and effective for ailments much more invasive western medicine cannot touch. A friend of mine with some physical problem and a big secret — multiple personality disorder — got up on the gurney of a gifted acupuncturist. The acupuncturist held her hands over my friend, and said, after about three minutes, There’s another energy here. I can’t treat you. But we have somebody who can.

The sadness of the idea that native Americans had not invented the wheel nor had beasts of burden (aside from women); that eyeless-in-Gaza Sphinx feeling I used to get gazing at the empty desert of pre-colonial African literature, never passes. Whether Aristotle gave syphilis to Montezuma or vice versa is something they’re still fighting about, also sadder than bears thinking about too much. I remember encountering, in New York City, at the Museum of African Art, a small mimetic 14th century Ife sculpture of a woman’s face and thinking, but there was a Renaissance in Africa. Where are the documents? Buried in the sand with Ozymandias? Sliced and bogarted by Elgin for the British Museum, or by Andre Malraux from Angkor Wat for auction? There, at least, in Europe, the third world antiquities would have a chance of surviving. As the Cleopatra-era chair at the Cairo Museum, popping pearl inlays before your eyes in the drafty glass case, or the karyatids of the Acropolis, melting in modern Athens’ carbon monoxide, and the beheaded apsaras of Angkor Wat, squeezed by boa-constrictor banyan roots, barely did.

Fourteenth century Ife sculpture: there was a Renaissance in Africa.

http://www.africanart.org/traveling/13/dynasty_and_divinity_ife_art_in_ancient_nigeria

For 20 years, a view of the Khmer Rouge genocide as the rage of illiterates held sway simply because no one had found their meticulous documents, and, oh yes! They were in Khmer. For four centuries, the documents of the Dutch founders of Manhattan lay hidden and untranslated somewhere upstate, much obscuring the libertarian and capitalist legacy which made New York City, for one brief shining moment, ca. Jackson Pollock drip paintings, 1947-Sept. 11, 2001, the capital of the world. This, the idea that Africa’s Canterbury Tales and the Incas’ World According to King Ruang, are buried somewhere in an urn under the shifting desert sands, to be recovered, perhaps only in our dreams, as were the Nag Hammadi scrolls, half of which were burned for firewood, is of course the essential problem with the canon. As with the genocide of the Jews, the People of the Word, by the Nazis, the People of the Meticulous Records, the canon rests on literacy and the preservation of paper.

It also rests on some pretty damn good ideas. That you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every generation, for example, and the possibility that women and slaves have souls — the latter notion noticeably absent in Islamist and Chinese culture. I am thinking about Seneca, and the accidents of cultural transmission — how and why he got to Shakespeare, and Montaigne, and the Renaissance, and thence to us. According to the intarnets, Seneca wrote in Latin and other Stoics did not. Educated Renaissance Euros like Montaigne, on whose invention of autobiography (pace, St. Augustine) and interiority much of the rise of individual human rights and modernity, and the French language itself, depend, spoke only Latin until he was six years old. He could read Seneca and not others who wrote in Greek. By the same token — of Latin speakers, like Montaigne, translating into European idiom the Roman canon — Shakespeare got his English translation of Seneca in the early 17th century. There is an argument that Shakespeare’s splendid vision of man, to which modernity owes its representative forms of government — What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! — rests firmly in the humanism of the pagan philosophers.
http://www.stoics.com/why_stoics.html

So. While the Afro pomo homos play video games, homeschool their children, and labor to reinvent communitarianism and civil obligation as Rome burns? Let’s you and me go into the back yard.  Cultivate our cabbages. Sit in the sunshine with the undertoads. Then get out and do some voter registration.

Roll on, Seneca. Power to the people.

Seneca the Younger, Nero's tutor.

(c)Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

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A friend of mine was New England bureau chief of a newspaper far away for a million years. No one in New England believed that they worked, which they did, about 14 hours a day, and would be slightly insulted when it was impossible to meet during their extensive business hours. No one in the city which published the newspaper for which they worked believed that they existed. For those of us who write, seeing the byline on an actual newspaper is evidence that we and our obsessions exist.

Such is my life online, I think, as I keep it very separated from the real life people I complain about, and regularly go about erasing online evidence that my LJ user name is connected to a “real” person name. To exist in the world, with a hyper real self online, is basically to have two identities, real and realer. You also can’t gossip with real people about what your imaginary friends online are up to.

Reading Hilton Kramer’s obituary today, in which his many combative campaigns on behalf of high modernism and mandarin aesthetics were detailed — I got pissed off at him for sneering at Vermeer simply because millions came out to view him — got me thinking about this dissociative state. Turns out a lot of things he took exception to I agree with. He was a staunch defender of Milton Avery, who I’ve loved since I first saw his stuff in the 60s. He came to prominence in an attack on Harold Rosenberg’s epochal essay defining Abstract Expressionism, and with it New York City, as the epicenter of modernism. Kramer said, “By defining Abstract Expressionist painting as a psychological event, it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere. It reduced the art object itself to the status of a psychological datum.”

Of post-modernism, and the idea that irony imbues and permits all kinds of immoral behavior, Kramer thought little. The obituary recalls

A resolute high modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of the aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the New York School, notably Pop (“a very great disaster”), conceptual art (“scrapbook art”) and postmodernism (“modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate”).

What’s interesting about Kramer is how often he is right for what seem to me the wrong reasons, ie., sticking to the canons of Western culture. I am for the canons of Western culture as well as those of all other cultures, including the counter-. Nothing is more soul-murdering, as I have recently been discovering in my tour of hippie memoir, than having to re-invent the wheel every day and have it collectivized by a guru on the make. Canons are good, exactly what’s missing in hippie existence, with feral masculinist values rushing in to take their place.

But this life of the mind — although it could and did have a financial effect, for example, on the sale of Milton Avery’s paintings and the reputations of all those jazz-hands museum exhibitions and tap-dancing curators — was one from which Kramer seemed detached. He fell into life as a critic and arts editor as a grad student of philosophy who’d made friends with the editor Philip Rahv. I sense that his mandarin or conservative view, while upholding clear standards, also appealed to the grey lady aesthetic of the New York Times who with Kramer, I submit, were to be cautious in admitting that the art forms of the 1960s were anything more than charlatanism — the mid-20th century equivalent of the outrage with which Manet in his day and Picasso in his were greeted. Unusually, I think, for the NYT, Kramer’s education was far from the Ivies or New York city’s socialist or bohemian purlieus like NYU or Cooper Union. A New Englander, and not of the Brahmin kind, Kramer’s attack on Rosenberg, published in Art News in 1952, was launched from a graduate school seminar on Dante and Shakespeare in Indiana. I’d add that I agree with him and think he was right in believing that psychoanalytic values in painting — as well as in the Stanislavsky acting method which has permitted so much horrific professional behavior by actors in Hollywood — are just as bullshit in aesthetics as they were in psychiatry.

At the end of his life, Kramer was surprised by his reputation as a dragon. “I’m really not very angry at all,” he told New York magazine in 1984. “I am appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I think of myself as judicious.”

And that detachment, being very different from who you are in the city far away where your byline is published in the daily newspaper, online, or as an art critic, is what I’m thinking about today. I know my friend and I, and Hilton Kramer, literally exist as our best selves in what you could call cyberspace. Is it true matter does not exist? And only the soul does?

I am coming down the home stretch in the magisterial and exceedingly well-written huge new biography of William James. It identifies as the keystone of his life one of the pages I have quoted over and over in my genocide work, James’ thought on the saintly virtue of poverty. James wrote:

Over and above the mystery of self-surrender, there are in the cult of poverty other religious mysteries. There is the mystery of veracity: “Naked came I into the world,” etc. — whoever first said that, possessed this mystery. My own bare entity must fight the battle — shams cannot save me. There is also the mystery of democracy, or sentiment of the equality before God of all his creatures. This sentiment (which seems in general to have been more widespread in Mohammedan than in Christian lands) tends to nullify man’s usual acquisitiveness. Those who have it spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages, preferring, as I said in a former lecture, to grovel on the common level before the face of God. It is not exactly the sentiment of humility, though it comes so close to it in practice. It is humanity, rather, refusing to enjoy anything that others do not share.

Along these lines I am thinking the life of the mind, the cyber existence, the daily byline in a city far away, is more real.


Milton Avery, Gaspe Pink Sky, 1940
http://www.artchive.com/artchive/A/avery/gaspe_pink_sky.jpg.html

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

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