Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cold Pastoral: Camouflage

The Pastoral: the realm of the shepherd, his sheep; idealized love & longing, played out in a setting deliberately removed from the city, the polis in which trade & politics are carried out, the realm of urbanism, urbanity. Why begin Some Versions of Pastoral, as Empson does, thusly: "It is hard for an Englishman to talk definitely about proletarian art, because in England it has never been a genre with settled principles, and such as there is of it, that I have seen, is bad"? "I think good proletarian art," the maker of the ambiguities continues, "is usually Covert Pastoral."

Pastoral, in Empson's sense, is any work about the people but not by or for them. A literature, in some sense – by no means necessarily Marxian – of exploitation. For Empson, the Pastoral is always bound up with the political, with the relationships between classes, & therefore the question of proletarian literature ("socialist realism" as Gorki called it) & the whole issue of what was to become of literature under the Soviet experiment, color his entire discussion of the Pastoral in English writing. The Pastoral is written, at least proleptically, under the sign of the hammer & sickle (especially, one supposes, the sickle.)
[Dr Johnson, on Lycidas: "Its form is that of a pastoral; easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting."]
Ian Hamilton Finlay's 1978 "Some Versions of Pastoral: Homage to William Empson" (with Gary Hincks) is on its face a series of variations on the cover design of the 1960 New Directions paperback of Some Versions of Pastoral. That latter book's design is a prime example of the flaccid abstractionism into which ND's designers so often fell when at a loss for a proper image: grey blobs on a black ground on the top half, black blobs on a grey ground on the bottom. Finlay seizes those blobs for what they most immediately resemble to a post-war eye: camouflage patterns.

"Some Versions" is of a piece with Finlay's other two-sided, superimposed works, from the 1989 print "Two Landscapes of the Sublime" (a waterfall & a guillotine, of identical shapes & dimensions) to the 1984 "Terror/Virtue" medal, whose face (a classical column) is mirrored on its reverse (a guillotine). These works present hard but not unfamiliar truths about 18th-century thought & history: that the mechanized terror of the guillotine is implied both within the proto-Romantic theories of the Sublime & within the cult of neo-classical, "Roman" virtue. (For more, see my "Piety of Terror.")

The pastoral is still very much alive for Finlay, but it is not the truth of fields, trees, sheep, nymphs & shepherds that compels him; nor is it the classic allegory of pastoral, by which the poet may comment upon current events (cf. Spenser's Shepheardes Calender). Rather, it is the sense in which history has rendered all nature camouflage, a deceptive surface behind which lurk post-modern killing machines, cloaked in the finest products of abstract expressionism.
In Manhattan, people dress with a utilitarian flair – clothes for comfort, clothes in which one can walk from place to place even in the baking heat, but still show the form to advantage. (The great fashion faux pas of Summer 2006 – clam-diggers for men – was still in evidence, but more often on tourists than natives.) In Boca Raton, the fashion is for camouflage. (I'm reminded of the first camouflage moment at the turn of the 1970s/80s, largely inspired by Joe Strummer & co.) Standard olive jungle camouflage, of course – though that is usually worn by laborers & small children of the affluent – and the various "desert" and "urban" varieties developed over the past three decades, but more often in the glittering malls & arcades one sees young women in camouflage patterns of eye-popping turquoise & pink. There is no overt commentary being pursued – when one wore camouflage pants in 1981, one was practically overtly calling for the downfall of the Reagan monarchy – as likely as not, these are Bush voters. A semiotic I have yet to decipher.

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