Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fetish II

You’ll have to forgive me – it’s the first week of classes & my attention is too scattered for really concentrated thinking, beyond what I’m going to say during the next class meeting (& how to disguise my ignorance in front of dozens of keen-eyed undergraduates). Or beyond how to arrange books on my new (I estimate) 75 linear feet of shelf space. My original plan was to make the closet sort of a modernist & proto-modernist wonderland: On the Left, Ruskin & Joyce; on the Right, Pound, Eliot, & Williams; and Dead Ahead, modernist criticism. Getting these big blocks of books out of my study shelves (probably 100+ Joyce books, maybe 130+ Pound) would serve to free up lots of space for contemporary poetry & allow me to tidy up some of the “public spaces” in the house – which at the moment are decorated with Easter Island-like tottering stacks.

In the event, it turned out there was a lot more shelf space than I’d anticipated in that closet. Pound, Eliot, & WCW were swallowed up on the Right, so for good measure I threw in my Stevens collection (could’ve thrown in the Objectivists, for what it’s worth). Modernist criticism (when one left out modernist poetry criticism, which has its own home in the study with all the other poetry crit) barely made a dent on the back wall, so I added sections of Marx & Marxist thought, Frankfurt School, & Marxist cultural criticism. Still a lot of shelving to fill. Maybe everybody should send me a copy of their book.

Without rewriting Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” I can’t help but note a funny double feeling: my sense of immense pleasure in shlepping armloads of books from one room to another, then lovingly arranging them, given a peculiar twist by my concurrent realization that no, I’m not doing any intellectual labor by moving books, despite what my reptile-brain seems to believe. Ought to write an essay on the arrangement of books someday (ought to get around to reading that Roger Chartier book): I think it’s the first thing I notice when I’m visiting – how have they arranged their books? (That is, if I don’t have that sinking recognition that “these folks don’t have any books” – which Marjorie Perloff once noted of the Bush Sr. household.) I was tunneling thru Our University’s library yesterday putting together a reserve shelf, and I had my normal reaction to the Library of Congress classification system: Why the hell isn’t Heidegger on poetry somewhere closer to Gadamer on Celan? why is This next to That? I understand the LoC’s logic on almost every occasion – I just don’t always happen to agree with it.
Reading David Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (Knopf, 1995), a book I’ve avoided for one reason or another for a long time. It’s not bad at all – indeed, cumulatively it’s very good indeed, serving up a wealth of very interesting information & some pretty relevant interpretations along the way. It’s just that on a sentence-by-sentence level, Reynolds’s prose is so “workmanlike,” so flat and assertive, leaving nothing to suggestion or implication, that I often feel like I’m reading one of my 3-year-old’s more advanced nonfiction books. And then I look up from Reynolds, & realize I’ve gone thru 10 or 20 pages, and learned quite a lot that I’m glad to know.

Glad for one thing to be reminded of the Whitman poem Zukofsky returned to the most, the bitter “Respondez!,” which Whitman wrote around 1855 and revised into the following version around 1871, reflecting on postwar events. Reynolds is right – it’s the “most cynical” poem of 19th century America – almost cynical enough to serve as commentary on the opening of the 21st century:
Respondez! Respondez!
(The war is completed--the price is paid--the title is settled beyond recall;)
Let every one answer! let those who sleep be waked! let none evade!
Must we still go on with our affectations and sneaking?
Let me bring this to a close--I pronounce openly for a new distribution of roles;
Let that which stood in front go behind! and let that which was behind advance to the front and speak;
Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Let the old propositions be postponed!
Let faces and theories be turn’d inside out! let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!
Let there be no suggestion above the suggestion of drudgery!
Let none be pointed toward his destination! (Say! do you know your destination?)
Let men and women be mock’d with bodies and mock’d with Souls!
Let the love that waits in them, wait! let it die, or pass still-born to the other spheres!
Let the sympathy that waits in every man, wait! or let it also pass, a dwarf, to other spheres!
Let contradictions prevail! let one thing contradict another! and let one line of my poems contradict another!
Let the people sprawl with yearning, aimless hands! let their tongues be broken! let their eyes be discouraged! let none descend into their hearts with the fresh lusciousness of love!
(Stifled, O days! O lands! in every public and private corruption!
Smother’d in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
Brazen effrontery, scheming, rolling like ocean’s waves around and upon you, O my days! my lands!
For not even those thunderstorms, nor fiercest lightnings of the war, have purified the atmosphere;)
--Let the theory of America still be management, caste, comparison! (Say! what other theory would you?)
Let them that distrust birth and death still lead the rest! (Say! why shall they not lead you?)
Let the crust of hell be neared and trod on! let the days be darker than the nights! let slumber bring less slumber than waking time brings!
Let the world never appear to him or her for whom it was all made!
Let the heart of the young man still exile itself from the heart of the old man! and let the heart of the old man be exiled from that of the young man!
Let the sun and moon go! let scenery take the applause of the audience! let there be apathy under the stars!
Let freedom prove no man’s inalienable right! every one who can tyrannize, let him tyrannize to his satisfaction!
Let none but infidels be countenanced!
Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence, lust, be taken for granted above all! let writers, judges, governments, households, religions, philosophies, take such for granted above all!
Let the worst men beget children out of the worst women!
Let the priest still play at immortality!
Let death be inaugurated!
Let nothing remain but the ashes of teachers, artists, moralists, lawyers, and learn’d and polite persons!
Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!
Let the cow, the horse, the camel, the garden-bee--let the mud-fish, the lobster, the mussel, eel, the sting-ray, and the grunting pig-fish--let these, and the like of these, be put on a perfect equality with men and woman!
Let churches accommodate serpents, vermin, and the corpses of those who have died of the most filthy of diseases!
Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for none but fools!
Let men among themselves talk and think forever obscenely of women! and let women among themselves talk and think obscenely of men!
Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in public, naked, monthly, at the peril of our lives! let our bodies be freely handled and examined by whoever chooses!
Let nothing but copies at second hand be permitted to exist upon the earth!
Let the earth desert God, nor let there ever henceforth be mention’d the name of God!
Let there be no God!
Let there be money, business, imports, exports, custom, authority, precedents, pallor, dyspepsia, smut, ignorance, unbelief!
Let judges and criminals be transposed! let the prison-keepers be put in prison! let those that were prisoners take the keys! (Say! why might they not just as well be transposed?)
Let the slaves be masters! let the masters become slaves!
Let the reformers descend from the stands where they are forever bawling! let an idiot or insane person appear on each of the stands!
Let the Asiatic, the African, the European, the American, and the Australian, go armed against the murderous stealthiness of each other! let them sleep armed! let none believe in good will!
Let there be no unfashionable wisdom! let such be scorn’d and derided off from the earth!
Let a floating cloud in the sky--let a wave of the sea--let growing mint, spinach, onions, tomatoes--let those be exhibited at shows, at a great price for admission!
Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! let the few seize on what they choose! let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey!
Let shadows be furnish’d with genitals! let substances be deprived of their genitals!
Let there be wealthy and immense cities--but still through any of them, not a single poet, savior, knower, lover!
Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away!
If one man be found who has faith, let the rest set upon him!
Let them affright faith! let them destroy the power of breeding faith!
Let the she-harlots and the he-harlots be prudent! let them dance on, while seeming lasts! (O seeming! seeming! seeming!)
Let the preachers recite creeds! let them still teach only what they have been taught!
Let insanity still have charge of sanity!
Let books take the place of trees, animals, rivers, clouds!
Let the daub’d portraits of heroes supercede heroes!
Let the manhood of man never take steps after itself!
Let it take steps after eunuchs, and after consumptive and genteel persons!
Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel! (Say! which is trodden under heel, after all?)
Let the reflections of the things of the world be studied in mirrors! let the things themselves still continue unstudied!
Let a man seek pleasure everywhere except in himself!
Let a woman seek happiness everywhere except in herself!
(What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?)
Let the limited years of life do nothing for the limitless years of death? (What do you suppose death will do, then?)

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