All entries for June 2007

June 15, 2007

What is 'Anglo–Welsh'?

I am very impressed by the attitude adopted in Gwyn Jones’ essay, ‘The First Forty Years: Some Notes on Anglo-Welsh Literature’, especially as it was written in the seventies, a moment when there were still problems with the way in which critics considered Welsh writing in English. Unlike many Welsh critics, Jones recognises the importance of Welsh writing in English and does not see it as a negative thing.

I think they arrived in the best possible way, with the maxi-(78)mum of offence and the maximum of effect. The majority of the Anglo-Welsh have been painfully modest and deferential in face of native Welsh criticism: we would no more talk back to a proper Cymro [Welshman] than we would cheek our mother. If the situation were to be expressed heraldically, we proved no red and rampant dragon, belching fire and brimstone and fire, but an inverted hydra, possessing not a hundred heads but a hundred bottoms; and such was the kynedyf (as the Mabinogion would call it), the peculiar quality of this unnatural monster , that every time one of these bottoms was kicked two grew in its place. (77-78)

Jones expresses the situation with that singular Welsh humour that is so familiar to me. He does though take a moment to define exactly what Anglo-Welsh literature is, stating that it refers to ‘those authors of Welsh blood or connexion who for a variety of reasons write their creative work in English’ (78). Jones also makes the important point that ‘most of [Wales’] writers are working class origin, or the sons of the lowliest strata of the middle class: the poor middle class, teachers, parsons, small tradespeople’ (79). Jones wonders whether this explains the delay in the emergence of Welsh writing in English. Jones is also aware that ‘the decay of Nonconformity’ is a factor in the rise of ‘Anglo-Welsh literature (81). While Jones recognises the gifts that Nonconformity gave to the Welsh, he also suggests that it was detrimental with its ‘dogma and shibboleth’ and ‘the weakening lure of the pulpit’ (81)

When Anglo-Welsh literature did emerge, Cymraeg and English language literatures came into conflict and Jones tries to ‘display the paradox, indeed the fantasy of the Welsh and the Anglo-Welsh literary situation’ (82).

Obviously there could be no extensive Anglo-Welsh literature till there existed what I have called a reservoir of Anglo-Welshness from which it could flow. This means, in cold and brutal fact, until English was the first language of a fair, or even considerable proportion of the people of Wales. Anglo-Welsh literature, so it seems to me, is the rendering articulate of the majority of Welshmen who cannot, do not, and will not make Welsh their first language. It follows that every Anglo-Welsh writer passionately though he may proclaim his love of Wales and things Welsh, is a danger to the Welsh language. […] The Anglo-Welsh, though they are a danger to the Welsh language, must never be its enemy; and the Welsh Welsh, even if they are true dancers before our tribal ark, will be unwise to try and impose an irresistible logic upon an immovable fact; they must accept that they cannot speak for, even to, half their fellow-countrymen; while to the great world outside they may not speak at all. (82)

Jones undermines the privileging of Cymraeg speakers over the supposedly tainted Anglo-Welsh. Rather he offers a less essentialist view of language and culture:

I do not believe that Welshness and the Welsh language are synonymous. But I think that the preservation and extension of the Welsh language are of primary importance to Anglo-Welsh literature. Many Anglo-Welsh writers are fluent Welsh-speakers, a few know no Welsh at all; others know what we had best leave undefined as ‘a bit’ of Welsh; but in their varying degrees they are all living on an inherited fund of Welshness and mustn’t exhaust the capital. ‘Anglo-Welsh, after all, is just a tag, a literary label, a device for avoiding circumlocution. (83).

Jones, Gwyn. ‘The First Forty Years: Some Notes on Anglo-Welsh literature’. Triskel One: Essays on Welsh and Anglo-Welsh Literature. Ed. Sam Adams and Gwilym Rees Hughes. Swnasea: Christopher Davies Publishers, 1971.

June 14, 2007

Being Somebody and Being Nobody


In the first chapter of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, Jack Engler sets out to reconcile ‘Buddhist teaching about no-self and newer psychodynamic thinking about the importance of self-development in object-relations theory and self psychology’ (35). He notes that often the use of Buddhism by psychoanalysts has attracted ‘notoriety and criticism’ and it has been condemned for its ‘developmental position’ (35). Engler states that he will set out the case for being “somebody’ and then the case for being “nobody”.

1.On Being Somebody
Engler begins by stating that ‘it takes certain ego capacities just to practice meditation or any spiritual practice’ (36). This is because such practices are ‘based on observing moment-to-moment experience’ and committing oneself to such a routine can ‘strengthen[s] fundamental ego capacities’ (36). The problem is that fro some therapists the idea of “transcending the ego” is meaningless, since “ego” is in this context, ‘a collective term designating the regulatory and integrative functions’ and to lose that, would be ‘to surrender the very faculties that make us human – the capacity to think, plan, remember, anticipate, organize[sic], self-reflect, distinguish reality from fantasy, exercise voluntary control over impulses and behaviour [sic], and love’ (36).

Engler suggests that Buddhist practice does not ‘exempt us from normal developmental tasks’ and this is part of Buddhism’s attraction to Westerners’ (36). However Buddhist teachings are sometimes misinterpreted leading to the following view: ‘I do not need to struggle to find out who I am, what my desires and aspirations are, what my needs are, what my capabilities and responsibilities are, how I am relating to others, and what I could or should do with my life’ (37). In this case, the lack of selfhood relieves this ‘burden’ and the misapplied practices suggest that there is no need ‘to become (psychologically) somebody’ (37).

Engler suggests that Buddhist teachings can also be misapplied in relation to ideas of the self and perfection:

The enlightenment ideal can itself be cathected narcissistically as a version – the mother of all versions! – of the grandiose self: as the acme of personal perfection, with all the mental defilements (kilesas) and fetters (samyojanas) eradicated – the achievement of a purified state of complete self-sufficiency and personal purity from which all badness will be removed, which will be admired by others, and which will be invulnerable to further injury or disappointment. “Perfection” unconsciously comes to mean freedom from symptoms so one’s self will be superior to everyone else’s, the object of their admiration if not envy. (37)

Finally Engler mentions a misguided ‘mirroring or idealizing type of selfobject transference with teachers that remain impermeable to reality-testing for far too long, especially in the case of Asian teachers who are often perceived as powerful beings of special aura, status, and worth’ (37). Engler adds: ‘In their unique presence one can feel special oneself, thereby masking actual self-feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, and shame, or even worse, feelings of being defective or flawed at the core’ (37-38). Engler concludes that there is no way to practice meditation without facing problems in our own characters structures and he is aware that it ‘can serve defensive aims’ (38).

2. Change in Spiritual Practice: Gradual or Sudden? Partial or Complete?
Drawing on an exchange between Philip Kapleau Roshi and a student interviewer, Engler brings out the fact that Buddhist practices will not instantly solve one’s doubts and anxieties about one’s self – in fact, it only draws attention to them. In practice, the path towards enlightenment or kensho is extremely painful and difficult. First, Engler states that the subject must have reached ‘the end of the path’ so that there is a change ‘in our normal relationship to experience in that moment’ (39). In this kind of being, pain can be faced ‘without judgement, censorship, condemnation, or the wish to extrude’ but rather ‘with clarity, openness and compassion’ (39). Similarly, pleasure in the moment does not lead to ‘attraction and clinging’ (39).

Buddhism negatives the ‘reactive approach-avoidance response’ that much of psychoanalysis believes to be innate in human beings (39). Its aim is to discover how to maintain such a state of being in every moment and it is at this point that ‘self-generated suffering’ will be no more. However, this does not happen overnight – this is clear particularly in the Theravada tradition, but also in Buddhism generally and its ‘classical and commentarial traditions’ (39). Rather it occurs in ‘stages or increments, much as change occurs in psychotherapy’ (39). Self-generated suffering continues until one reaches the “extinction” or niroda of ‘unwholesome mental factors’ or samyojanas and this is experienced in four “path-moments” or magga, each of which represents the extinction of ‘a specific group of pathogenic mental factors’ (40). This is the real emphasis of Buddhist teaching according to Engler.

The four groups of magga are as follows:
1. The extinction of ‘core beliefs about the self – “maladaptive cognitions” or “core assumptions” in the language of cognitive psychology – pathogenic beliefs about who we are and how we become free’ (40). E.g. the self as ‘singular, separate, independent, and self identical’ (40). At this stage though the subject can still ‘act in unwholesome, selfish and uncompassionate ways’ (40).
2. Libido and aggression are tackled in the next stage, interpreted in Buddhism as kama-tanha or “desire for sense pleasure” and vyapada or “ill-will”. These are only “weakened” at this stage as they are ‘deeply conditioned’ motivational states (40).
3. Kama-tanha and vyapada are completely eliminated at this stage. Unlike psychoanalysis, Buddhism does not see these drives as inherent to the personality.
4. The last group interrogates mana or ‘the “conceit” of “I am” ’ (41). This factor encourages us to compare our sleves with others and it is ‘the root of all narcissistic striving’ (41).
Engler notes that these stages are similar to those of psychotherapy which tackles: ‘beliefs, perspectives […] amenable to modification’; ‘[c]ore motivational and drive states and their bases in affective reactivity’ and ‘narcissistic investments in the core sense of being a separate self’ (41). The task needs to tackled be in stages. Zen concords with this in differentiating between little and great kensho: ‘The realization of emptiness can be small or large, but it’s just a first glimpse of enlightenment’ (41).

3. The Need for Personal Work
Reaching enlightenment is a difficult task according to Engler and just because a subject has found enlightenment in one area of their life, it does not mean that their journey is at an end. Engler gives the example of teachers who sleep with their students or a monk who while achieving enlightened meditative states, was not able to sympathise or interact with others in an enlightened manner. Engler also notes that practice in the West seems to be different: in the overwhelming need for subjects ‘to deal with emotional and relational problems’ which are not necessarily unravelled in the uncovering of meditation (43). Students may also experience what Zen describes as makyo (‘or manifestations of delusion’) (43-44). In addition, patterns of painful behaviour sometimes return and meditation simply may not solve certain specific problems. A sense of self and self-esteem is essential before a student can follow a meditative path.

4. Limitaions of a Developmental Model
Engler notes that there are problems with the notion of becoming somebody before becoming nobody. A developmental model of this kind privileges spiritual enlightenment of psychological healing and it ignores the possibility of psychological health being improved via meditation. Also you cannot categorise subjects’ development so easily. In addition how can a nobody have a developmental line?

Engler rejects a developmental model and prefers instead to think of ‘spiritual practice’ as ‘multiply determined’ (49). He proceeds by drawing on Suler’s ten psychodynamic issues ‘related to having or not having an autonomous self’, which include using practice to:
1. ‘pursue narcissistic perfection and invulnerability’;
2. ‘calm fears of individuation’; (49)
3. ‘avoid responsibility and accountability’;
4. ‘rationalize [sic] fears of intimacy and closeness’;
5. ‘suppress unwanted or conflictual feelings’;
6. ‘avoid anger, self-assertion and competitiveness by adopting a passive-dependent style’;
7. ‘satisfy superego needs for self-punishment for feelings of unworthiness, shame, or guilt’;
8. ‘escape from internal experience’;
9. ‘devalue reason, intellect, and reflection on one’s motives and behaviour [sic]’;
10. ‘substitute for grief and the need for mourning in the face of loss’ (49-50).
These are motives that have to be overcome.

5. On Being Nobody
Engler now begins to consider what it is to be nobody beginning by considering the psychological self versus the ontological self. What kind of self are Buddhists talking about? Engler answers this question by stating that Buddhists are not talking about ‘the psychologically “differentiated” self’ of Western tradition, ‘am autonomous individual with a sense of differentiated selfhood having its own nuclear ambitions, goals, design, and destiny’ (40). This kind of bounded selfhood was ‘unknown in Buddha’s day’ and in the countries from which Buddhism has emerged, there is much more of a sense of “we”-ness (51). Engler states: ‘The self is experienced as embedded in a matrix of relations and as defined by those relations, not just a matrix of human and social relationships but the more encompassing matrix of relationships within the world of nature, and ultimately the cosmos as a whole’ (51). Still, Buddhism does understand the ‘basic ego’ and ‘normal psychical functioning’ and Engler believes that Buddhist sages have had a very strong sense of what it is to be psychologically healthy (51). Rather the Buddhists aim their criticism at the notion of an ontological self, that is ‘the feeling or belief that there is an inherent, ontological core at the center [sic] of our experience that is separate, substantial, enduring, self-identical’ (52). For Buddhists, this kind of selfhood (the atta) ‘cannot be found in any of the constituents of experience as an autonomous, ontological core’ (52). E.g. a chariot does not have an essence, simply parts.

Engler questions why human beings feel the need to represent the self in this ontological guise. Buddhist teachings do not address this issue. Why do we adapt the self in such a manner? To answer the question, he offers ‘four fundamentally different types of self experience’ that each embody ‘a different core experience of selfhood’ (53).

1. Self as Multiple and Discontinuous
Engler points out that we all act differently at different times with different people. Interacting with others is a learning process and sometimes we experience ourselves as ‘a representation of the other’, while at other times we experience ourselves in relation to an other (54). Most extreme are the alter egos in multiple personalities. So there can ‘be more than one “I”, more than one version of “myself” (55).

2. Self as Integral and Continuous
Usually there is a master version of selfhood which creates ‘a sense of continuity’ (55). This selfhood enables ‘cohesiveness’, ‘personal agency’ and ‘personal worth’ (55). It belongs to us, it is our true self, it is ours to reveal or hide. This kind of selfhood can also work along with a Discontinous Self, so the self can be ‘multiple or singular’ (57). This selfhood is useful in Western societies ‘where the sense of continuity and invariance is no longer carried and maintained by the supra-individual, invariant group’ (57).

3. Unselfconscious Experience
This is a kind of selfhood where a strong ‘sense of self’ is lacking and we become ‘completely at one with what we are doing’ (58). Engler adds that ‘the knower, the knowing and the known are experienced as one’ (58). It is associated with meditation and mysticism, and psychoanalysis tends to see it as a regression. We experience this in everyday experiences (when our name is called and we respond instantaneously) or peak experiences (‘a Zen archer who lets the arrow loose without deciding or intending to let it go’) (59).It is not that one loses selfhood, but the self is organised around experience. Engler adds: ‘It becomes possible when walking, as Zen says, to just walk; when running, to just run’ (62). Unfortunately, this is often ‘temporary and transient’ while problems of self are suppressed (64).

4. No-Self
This goes beyond realising that there is no ‘separate self’(‘Thoughts do not need a thinker’) an it reaches towards making a new mode of being via two routes:
• Route One: shifting subjectivity ‘from representations of the self to awareness itself’ (65) – this involves the recognition that one ‘cannot directly observe the observing self’ because ‘we are that awareness’ (66).
• Route Two: directing ‘awareness from the moment-to-moment manifestations and experiences of self’ (67). This involves concentrating on ‘every object of consciousness, without preference or selection’ (67). Such ‘mindfulness’ offers ‘insight into the nature of all representations of self and reality as constructions only and as ungraspable in any real or definitive sense’ (68). Through this route, certain psychological functions that once occurred automatically are subject to awareness. The self is regulated by impermanence as are all objects of perception. There are no ‘things’ because nothing is as solid as that word suggests. Confronting this loss is an important part of the process.

Engler, Jack. ‘Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A re-examination of the Understanding of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism’. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue. Ed. Jeremy D. Safran. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 35 -79.

Eric J. Sundquist on Rilke and Dylan Thomas

The poems referred to in this entry are In Country Sleep and ‘Into her Lying Down Head’ by Dylan Thomas and Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

Sundquist begins his essay by retelling an anecdote from Vernon Watkins, who described how he and Dylan Thomas would read Rilke to each other and how Thomas became very excited by the poems. Sundquist suggests that both Rilke and Thomas ‘inhabit poetic landscapes which, if not governed by exactly the same theological assumptions, are markedly alike in their terrain’, as they ‘explore a borderline realm inhabited by the living and the dead’ (63). This ‘realm’ is simultaneously ‘an interior psychological construct’ and ‘a conjectured external world’ (63). While Thomas’ poetry does not experience the same flux as Rilke’s, there are similarities between Thomas’ later works and Rilke’s Duino Elegies that deserve examination.

Thomas does not have angels as Rilke does and Sundquist that Thomas might even have been ready to parody such an idea. However, Thomas’ landscapes do appear as ‘intersections between the living and dead, with man and nature in perpetual decay and regeneration’ (64). Thomas demands that one explores the ‘country of the spirit’ and he discovers that ‘because the country of God is the abode of the dead, it is, whatever else it might come to be, pointedly the inheritance given him at birth and bounded by his own mind and body’ (65). Sundquist adds: ‘Just as the dead in country heaven always hark back to their life on earth, so the living at birth already contain the dead within them’ (65). Sundquist notices that death is a heavy burden in Thomas’ poetry and that Thomas must ‘play out this reciprocal agreement’ as ‘he shoulders the burden of the past’ (65). The poet, like the dead, is forever ‘[e]yeing the ragged globe from the grave’ (66).

Sundquist notes that Rilke too is concerned with ‘heritage’ and like Thomas he creates an imaginary realm ‘into which the dead are to be invited’ (66). Rilke is also concerned with another problem that preoccupied Thomas: whether ‘by granting the dead their space within, the efficacy of the living was somehow usurped or taken over’ (66).

Rilke’s earth, like Thomas’, is conspicuously the making of both the living and dead, a fruit whose language is mastered by both and which issues out of the love of both reciprocally. It is clearly marked as a system of elementary impulses, as though it were a gigantic organism aspiring and decaying into itself simultaneously […] (66)

In thinking about Rilke and Thomas, Sundquist refers to Freud’s work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud tries ‘to work out a physiological analogy for the compulsion that is produced when anxiety and incomplete memory balk the desire to return to an original and blissful stage in life, presumably in the womb, and which when balked reappears as a drive towards death as a way of regaining the early harmony’ (67). Sundquist uses Freud as a gloss here to explain Thomas’ and Rilke’s recapitulation. Thomas’ recapitulation represents ‘a return to state already experienced in the womb’, yet this womb-like destination is not simply ‘sheer bliss’, but a place inhabited by ‘the dead and the living’ (67). For Thomas, “the fall” is not ‘something which has specifically happened; rather it is continually happening, even before birth and after death’ (67). Imagery of ‘destruction and falling away’ is also inextricably linked to the ‘groin’ and the sexual act, which is itself extended to be entangled with the natural world. Sundquist notes that ‘all parts’ are ‘locked in clash and union, degeneration and growth’ (68).

In comparison, Rilke is also concerned with a world in which ‘completion and rest erupt only momentarily, flash up only to sink again inward and downward, as a plant blossoms and decays’ (68). Sundquist describes ‘the interior space which the dead inhabit’ as ‘that state toward which all life advances’ (68). Quoting the second elegy, Sundquist suggests that the act of being or living in such poems ‘seems almost to be evaporating into the air, as though all being were the organic workings of a large body’ (69). Death then might mean something more positive: ‘the feeling away of flower and rind in a return to an original seedlike state’ (69). The Duino Elegies represent ‘an airy realm barely accessible to the living’ and Rilke is more unsure than Thomas about the possibility of discovering such realm, that is expect through death. Sundquist notes that it is unclear whether Rilke’s lyric voice is one of the dead or whether he has achieved ‘the abode of angels’, but Sundquist is adamant that ‘his confusion is integral to the very space that he is trying to describe’ (70). Sundquist recognises Rilke’s uncertainty ‘in his interpretation of that evaporation of the self, at times lamenting, at times affirming it, and by the time of writing the Elegies it has taken on an almost apocalyptic tinge, prompted partly by his reaction to the war and the dissolution of European culture’ (70).

However, by the ninth elegy, Rilke has come to terms more with the dissolution of selfhood and Sundquist recognises that ‘the fading away of things is praised as the vehicle of a new transformation and regeneration of the earth into an invisible space within the self, as though the inner-most core were expanded to enclose all things in their disintegration’ (71). It can be possible to become the ‘terrible’ angel and Sundquist sees comparisons with Thomas as Rilke’s angels ‘cross and recross the artificial boundary of death and dwell in a domain much like the one Thomas had in mind when he conceived of his equally apocalyptic earth as a reposing white giant whose inhabitant remember “in country sleep” their past and future lives’ (71).

Like Rilke, Thomas was devastated by war, yet his prose writings on the subject are closer to Samuel Beckett’s ‘landscapes of nuclear holocaust’ than the country heaven. In contrast, the country heaven ‘grows into a praise of what is and what could be on this lump in the skies’, and in being about ‘happiness’ and ‘love’, it grows closer to Rilke’s Elegies. In creating such a vision, ‘mythology and the actual, or the remembered, have coalesced into one vision’, so fro example, when in the beginning of ‘In Country Sleep’, Thomas offers a prayer for his daughter, it is ‘enlarged into a recognition that the sexual fall is common to all creation, the preliminary act to the test of faith’ (72). Sundquist compares the sexual fall of ‘In Country Sleep’ and ‘Into her Lying Down Head’ with Rilke’s third elegy and he suggests that while Thomas interrogates the female, Rilke studies the male’s path into a ‘primeval wilderness of desires’ (74). Yet while Rilke’s act of love-making cannot induct one into the realm of angels, there is the distinct possibility in Thomas of such an event taking place.

Drawing on Eric Heller, Sundquist notes that Rilke is constantly writing against the void which was once ‘the divine home of souls’ (qtd, Sundquist, 76). Sundquist sees in the poetry of Rilke and Thomas a desire to reconstruct an idea of ‘home’ by ‘making everything into it, by animating life with the surging existence of the dead and reading the earth as a transparent script of what has gone before and what is to come’ (76). To make this happen though dictates a recapitulation which ‘becomes a means of transformed redemption for Thomas, and to a lesser extent for Rilke’ (76-77). While ‘Rilke is always on the verge of achieving the invisible earth, always near a passage into the space of angels, but not quite over the border’, Thomas finds this possibility in his ‘country heaven, in the reciprocity of life and death, remembrance and desire, rise and fall’ (77).

Sundquist, Eric J. ‘In Country Heaven: Dylan Thomas and Rilke’. Comparative Literature. Vol 31:1 (1979), 63-78.

June 13, 2007

Summoning Angels: Judith Ryan on Rilke

Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition is a study that ‘traces the many ways in which contemporary culture is “constituted and contested” in Rilke’s work’ (3). In doing so, the author, Judith Ryan, breaks down the borders between supposedly separate periods in Rilke’s writing.

In dealing with the Duino Elegies, Ryan compares the treatment of Blake’s prophetic texts in Rudolf Kassner’s Die Mystyk, die Kunstler und das Leben (Mysticism, Artists and Life) to the feeling of Rilke’s elegies, because both are like ‘fragments of ancient epics’ that ‘develop spatial and visual imagery that resists ordinary logical modes of understanding’ (111). Ryan notes that Kassner was an influence on Rilke and that he might have drawn on any number of Kassner’s descriptions of Blake’s work including the visions of fiery angels. Rilke may also have been influenced by Kassner’s discussion of Burne-Jones and William Morris in relation to his vision of angels as ‘self-reflecting mirrors’ (112). Like Rilke, the Pre-Raphaelites were preoccupied with angels in paintings like The Annunciation, The Prioress’ Tale and The Flower of God in which ‘angels, architecture and the aesthetic are linked’ (112). Ryan wonders whether the patron of Rilke was ‘susceptible’ to angelology, ‘the special art of calling on one’s guardian angel’ (112).

Ryan decides to focus on the second elegy with a mind to explaining ‘why the angel appears in this context at all’ and she feels that Rilke’s interest in Blake does not explain it fully (113). Turning to Stefan George, Ryan notes that George describes a period of writer’s block as being cured after a vision of a ‘naked angel’, a figure who instructs the poet ‘to learn his art from the simpler and more straitened lines of gentler landscapes’ (113). Ryan compares George and Rilke and she suggests that there are similarities in ‘the agonised search for a way to express despair; a hope for renewal of the poetic faculty; and the angel as a figure for the aesthetic’ (113). However, unlike George, Rilke is ‘against a simplistic conception of the beautiful’ and he ‘discovers that great art must also take account of all that is ugly, unpleasant and horrifying’ (114).

In addition to the influence of George, Ryan also recalls two poems (written in an earlier work The Life of Mary) life entitled ‘The Annunciation to Mary’ and ‘On Mary’s Death’. Ryan suggests that these poems have similarities with the elegies due to similar ‘unusual vocabulary’ and ‘descriptions of real and psychological space’, and she notes that the episode where Tobias is led by Raphael is omitted from the Mary poems but included in the elegy in order to lament the missing angel. The loss of Raphael in the second elegy represents a loss of protection for the young according to Ryan.

Ryan also sees the influence of medieval mysticism. In Duino Elegies, Rilke ‘reworks this evocation of imaginary space’ that he has already experimented with in other poems in The Life of Mary. Rilke’s angel departs from Pre-Raphaelite representations, because it is ‘disembodied and almost unrepresentable, an abstract figure of the imagination, creativity and the aesthetic’ (115). In contrast, people, at least initially, ‘seem more solid than angels’, yet Rilke figures human beings too in insubstantial imagery (115). Ryan sees ‘continual interchange […] between one human being and another, between human beings and nature, between human beings and the space in which angels move’ (116). The human speaker is ‘overwhelmed by a sense of continual self-dissolution’ and wonders whether in this breakdown, ‘some small part […] might be captured by the angels’ (116).

In contrast, the act of love is eternal like the moment of a smile or the Romantic ‘eternal moment’. In addition, the lovers cannot explain what they experience in human language, just as Rilke cannot encapsulate the angel’s being in plain speech. In contemplating the eternal, Rilke also describes the ‘human gesture /on Attic gravestones’ (qtd. Ryan, 117). Ryan responds by wondering whether Rilke read Keats’ ‘On a Grecian Urn’ and she sees both poems as ‘a meditation on the transience of human existence’ as opposed to the immortalising qualities of art (118).

By the end of the second elegy, Rilke has positioned human beings between the earthly and the divine with an awareness that ‘human emotions’ can ‘transcend the limitations placed on bodily experience’ (119). However the ‘physical’ part of being cannot follow the ‘emotional’ part, so the divine remains distant as ‘a more moderated or balanced version of overwhelming human feeling’ (119). The reference to following the divine with one’s eyes, reminds Ryan of the Orpheus story which was so significant to Rilke’s work and she notes that the first elegy ends with a reference to Linos, Orpheus’ teacher, an allusion that directs the reader back to the origins of elegy in this mythic tradition. While the First Elegy poses the cathartic power of song, the second questions ‘aesthetic representations and religious belief’ (120). While the first elegy directs one away from an embodied angel to the ‘voices that still resonate in nature’, the second elegy ponders the loss in ‘the transience of human life and also that of cultural tradition’ (120). The everyday Biblical communications of the divine are gone and while love might take human beings some way towards further knowledge, neither love nor the aesthetic sphere are adequate replacements.

Ryan notes that critics have tended to ignore the piecemeal form in the Duino Elegies and she suggests that its structure offers ‘a collection of fragments that remain in human consciousness like broken columns from an earlier age’ (120). Similarly the angels themselves seem to be incomplete:

Bodily parts – hands and torsos – seem oddly disconnected, and facial expressions – a smile, an upward glance – appear independent of the body to which they belong. The sheer abstraction of their language brings these elegies closer to allegory, and yet it resists any kind of simplistic decoding that would yield an easily articulated message. It seems to speak to the deepest and most primitive layers of our consciousness, and yet to go beyond any merely human conception of reality. (121)

Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Methodism in Wales

Methodism emerged from Pietism, Moravianism and the Puritan tradition. The eighteenth century Evangelical Revival is sometimes called the Methodist Revival and the term emerges out of a contemptuous term used to describe the ‘Holy Club’ surrounding Wesley in Oxford. However, Methodism began to develop in Wales before the Wesley conversion through the figures of Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland. The result was a network of religious organisations led by ‘an exhorter’ (“Methodism”).

Methodism also refers to ‘the theological emphasis and moral self-discipline which developed in Methodist bodies and in Wales especially, among the Calvinistic Methodists’ (“Methodism”). Calvinistic Methodists in Wales broke away from the Church of England in 1811 basing their theology on ‘the sovereignty of God and his grace in Christ and the election of the saints’ (“Methodism”). Methodism is now established as the Presbyterian Church of Wales or Yr Hen Gorff and the sect has succeeded particularly in the north of Wales, where as Independency and Baptism has dominated the south. Writers of Wales inspired by Methodism include William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Lewis Edwards, Islwyn, Daniel Owen, Robert Ambrose Jones, Gwenallt and Kate Roberts.

“Methodism”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Nonconformism in Wales


After the Reformation, a number of denominations began to emerge out of the Established Church including Baptists, Independency, Methodism (Calvanistic and Wesleyan), Quakerism and Unitarianism. The first dissent in Wales emerged via John Penry who was martyred in 1593. The first Dissenting denomination (apart from that of the Celtic Church) was comprised of Independents and Baptists in 1639 in Llanfaches, Mon. However with the rise of Methodism, by 1851, seventy percent of places of worship were Nonconformist. After the ‘golden age during the first half of the nineteenth century’, Nonconformity continue to exert an influence on ‘private, social and political responsibility’ (“Nonconformity”). This manifested itself in ‘Nonconformist Conscience’, which symbolised ‘the battle for religious and educational equality, missionary enterprise and the Temperance Movement’ (“Nonconformity”). Nonconformity also went hand-in-hand with radicalism in its ‘political responsibility to lead the Welsh people’ and this role did not ercede until after the Second World War when writers like Caradic Evans and Rhys Davies began to criticise Chapel culture.

Much literature in Wales came out of Nonconformism: ‘biblical commentaries, sermons, biographies […], doctrinal and controversial books, scriptural dictionaries and concordances, periodicals, historical works, poetry (especially hymns), moralistic novels and translations of Nonconformist writings in English’ (“Nonconformity”). Through the chapel and Sunday School, Welsh people were introduced to ‘the experiential sublimity of the hymn’, although Nonconformism was suspicious of novels, the theatre and the Eisteddfod. Writers inspired by Nonconformism are Morgan Llwyd, Charles Edwards, William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Thomas Jones of Denbigh, Islwyn, Daniel Owen and Gwenallt as well as Glyn Jones, Emyr Humpries and Roland Mathias.

“Nonconformity”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wilks and Brick on Naming and Exclusion

Wilks and Brick use ‘a sociolinguistic perspective’ in this essay to consider ‘major channels of communication in France, political parties and the press, with regard to the naming of traditionally exclusive groups such as women, homosexuals and ethic minorities’ (145). They proceed from the assumption that French language is seen as ‘a sacred artefact, a forbidden preserve untouchable by all but an elusive, normative elite’ (145). How can marginal groups be represented by such a language? How does ‘discriminatory language’ marginalise them and what subversive practices can allow the groups access to the language again e.g. ‘the reappropriation of pejorative terms’?

Linguistic Purity and the Norm
Terms such as ‘purity’ and ‘corruption have strong currency in attitudes towards the French idiom. Wilks and Brick admit that exclusion of some forms of language is inevitable in the process of standardisation, yet following other critics, they direct attention to three kinds of norms that are inherent in this kind of debate. The first is a objective norm, ‘the language that speakers actually produce’; the second is the prescriptive norm, ‘the institutionally prescribed standard to be found in dictionaries and grammar books and traditionally promoted through the education system’; and finally there is the subjective norm, that is ‘individual value judgements about language’ (146).

In the French context, Wilks and Brick recognise that prestige is associated with a standard of language (they quote R. Bourhis), and they point out that the French idiom has been manipulated by the state since the sixteenth century when pressure was exerted by ‘a self-perpetuating elite group: scholars and grammarians and those in attendance at the centre of power, the court of Louis XIV’ (146). Those excluded from the norm of language were ‘the “powerless” population’ (147). The ‘legacy’ from this initial intervention is summarised (through A. Lodge’s French: from dialect to standard) as promoting the following ideas:
• that the French spoken by the elite is best or of more value;
• and that reason and clarity are inherent in the best French.
The result, according to Wilks and Brick, is ‘linguistic intolerance and linguistic insecurity’ (147). As a consequence, ‘any unsanctioned attempt to change language may be experienced by self-styled ‘purists’ as an attack; language is a forbidden place which must be detached from the incursions of “outsiders” ’ (147).

Awareness of Discriminatory Language
If language is a forbidden territory, in what ways is language used and what are its ‘naming practices’ (148). The insider shores up the idiom as ‘an elite space’, while those outside of the norm see this site as ‘a forbidden territory’ (148). The insider’s language may be as discriminatory towards the outsider as ‘an active form of discrimination’ (148). Wilks and Brick suggest that there is a need for change in language use of insiders (‘the press and political parties’ or those who have an influence in the shape of the language) about outsiders (‘women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities’) (148).

To assess this problem, Wilks and Brick commenced with interviews of typical readers of Libération and Le Monde and with members of political parties like Le Parti Socialiste, Le RPR, Les Vertes and Le Front National. The results found that there were two extremes with participants either believing wholeheartedly that discriminatory language exists or denying its existence entirely. Of those who were aware of discriminatory language (the two newspapers, Le Parti Socialiste and Les Vertes), the focus was mainly on women as ‘a potentially excluded group’, apart from Les Vertes who were also aware about other marginal groups (149). Of those who did not recognise the existence of discriminatory language (Le RPR and Le Front National), there were ‘differences in levels of sensitivity’ (151). While Le RPR suggested that the language used was not problematic, she did show ‘covert sensitivity’ about difficulties for women. The situation is different for Le Front National, which, in spite of its status as ‘a high profile public “insider”’, has begun to present itself as ‘an “outsider” denied access to the forbidden domain of “dangerous” vocabulary’ (151-152). To Wilks and Brick, this represents ‘a bunker mentality’ and ‘a mirror game’ that plays with notions of insiders and outsiders (152).

Wilks, Clarissa and Noëlle Brick. ‘Naming and Exclusion: The Politics of Language in Contemporary France’. Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000. 145 – 153.

Lloyd and O'Brien on Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places

1. Spaces, Places, Sites/Sights of the Secret/Forbidden
Lloyd and O’Brien begin their introduction by noting that ‘the cartography of secret spaces and forbidden places extends far beyond physical locations and is present in realms as disparate as art, language, literature, philosophy, cinema, memory and social and political life’ (xv). The aim of their approach is ‘to uncover what has been hidden, displaced, repressed or suppressed in spaces of cultural and political history’ (xv). Space in this theorising can be ‘an interactive social sphere’, a site of power relations, in which different cultures negotiate to promote their own ‘presence’ (xv). Lloyd and O’Brien wonder how the secret and the forbidden have been manifested in different spaces. The essays included discuss ‘how the secret and forbidden intersect and are constructed through and against the regulatory social systems embedded in such accepted notions as: the public and private, the interior and exterior, and the male and female’ (xvi). It is Lloyd’s and O’Brien’s argument that the secret and the forbidden are especially relevant to ‘the formulation of our sense of belonging to a particular territory, whether a geographical space or a mental space’ (xvi).

Lloyd and O’Brien pause for a moment at this point to consider what the secret might mean; they suggest that it might refer to ‘the suppression of truth, the concealment of information or the preservation of desires or dark knowledge, whether by individuals, groups, or governments’ (xvi). The conclusion is that ‘the secret is both the space and the site through which, and upon which, the forbidden operates’, the two tending to co-exist (xvi).

But what about the forbidden? Lloyd and O’Brien see the forbidden working through ‘the symbolic orders of language, or the law of the father and/or nation’ and they suggest that ‘the forbidden excludes certain groupings or individuals, marked by difference’ (xvi). The forbidden is realised in ‘the refusal of entries into specific geographies or domains, the exile from designated spaces or sites/sights, or the taboos that create social or cultural prohibitions’ (xvi).

2. The Politics of Visibility
Visibility and invisibility are themes that are very relevant to the secret and the forbidden. Visibility can on the one hand indicate a physical embodiment of being, yet it can also signal the controlling gaze of ‘regulatory systems of power and knowledge which work differently both within and across the proscribed boundaries of different cultures and groupings’ (xvi). Similarly, invisibility has good and bad implications. While it implies in some cases being ‘absent in time and space, disenfranchised and disempowered’, Lloyd and O’Brien also recognise that, ‘in the face of a totalising system, a powerful elite, a patriarchal order or a potential attacker, invisibility may become a space of safety; a secret space that protects and obscures one from the controlling gaze, at home or abroad’ (xvii).

3.Inclusion and Exclusion
In keeping secrets, it is necessary for some to be excluded from the knowledge of an individual or group and Lloyd and O’Brien see emerging from this necessity, ‘the intriguing but frightening question of how reality may be constructed or manipulated’ (xviii). In the case of women, the interior secret space of domesticity and the private is now clearly being invaded by the public, while other ‘divisions’ are also being ‘transgressed’ in a similar fashion (xix).

Much has been written recently on the effects of displacement, of exile, and the crossing of cultural and territorial boundaries, and feminist theorists in particular have seen such ‘deterritorialisation’ as a potentially productive site for women artists and writers. Nevertheless, one does not have to leave one’s homeland to be displaced – practices of exclusion operate at all levels of society, including the personal. While exclusion may lead to alienation, marginality may […] be an important factor that enables self-discovery. (xx).

4. Bodies/Boundaries/Identities
The most important factor in thinking about the secret or forbidden, according to Lloyd and O’ Brien, is ‘the regulation of bodies of difference at the levels of the individual, the group and the nation’ (xx). Lloyd and O’ Brian add: ‘Gendered, sexed, raced, classed and ethnicised bodies are both the site/sight of the secret and forbidden, and the space of their embodiment and negotiation’ (xx). This regulation works through ‘an assumed set of values’ that are often unstable and secrets occasionally become legible (xx).

Secrets slip out, they cross boundaries, and what may be forbidden in one space or place may be permissible in another. More importantly, at certain key moments, before attempts to police and reinstate the status quo via surveillance of the public and private, bodies that have been excluded through the multiple and fractures lines of gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, generation or sexuality, have negotiated visibility. (xx).

However identity is often not simply defined by one factor:

Identities are not monolithic, uniformly constructed or reducible to singular categories, whether by religion, language, geography or gender. Like all identities, they are produced by the different ways in which the embodied subjects are positioned and position themselves along multiple lines, according to gender, race, religion, ethnicity, generation, sexuality (and so forth) at specific historical junctures. (xxi).

Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000.

June 12, 2007

Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Introduction to Border Crossings

Kirkpatrick begins her introduction by discussing the difficulty involved in telling ‘the story of women’s writing in Ireland’ (1). Like Irish writers themselves, the critic must avoid the mythologies that have been constructed around Irish women: ‘the virginal Hibernia, the Shan Van Vocht, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Dark Rosaleen, Mother Ireland’ (1). In creating this kind of criticism, the nation state can be extremely problematic, because ‘joining Irish nationalists meant walking back into the house, putting on the apron of servitude, locking the door, and throwing away the key’ (1).

Kirkpatrick reminds us of Sheehy-Skeffington who co-founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 and who was one of the first to suggest that the oppression of women in Ireland could not be solely blamed on Anglicisation. Other feminists disagreed of course, such as Countess Markievicz who, writing in 1909, argued for the necessity of a nation even fro women. Kirkpatrick wonders whether these seemingly different views may in fact represent ‘a difference of emphasis’ (2).

If Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington put feminism first in the feminist-nationalist equation, she also suggested that with free Irish women an emancipated Ireland would follow: sexual equality was the only solid foundation to build a nation. And if Markievicz seemed to put her nationalism before her feminism, it was only a hair’s breadth: in working for a free Ireland women were working with their own vision of the egalitarian state. (2).

What Kirkpatrick admires about both of these women is the way in which they promoted debate about feminism and the nation-state.

Modern feminists have complicated the debate further as critics like Edna Longley suggest that there can be nothing in common between nationalism, unionism and feminism because of the ‘absolutist and essentialist forms of self-definition’ that cannot be accepted by feminism (3). Longley prefers the ‘fluid boundaries of region’ that promote diversity rather than ‘the hard lines of national borders’ that homogenise all subjects within them (3). However, other feminists can see potential in the nation state. Kirkpatrick points us to the historian, Carol Coulter, because Coulter makes the point that national debates have given women a public stage. For Coulter, communal culture can be useful in creating an alternative nation state ‘without rigid hierarchies’ (4). As in the case of Sheehy-Skeffington and Markievicz, Kirkpatrick wonders whether these two modern feminists have found the same solution although by different routes and using different terminology.

Kirkpatrick suggests that this confusion might have emerged from uncertainty over signposting. Quoting from Yuval-Davis’ and Anthias’ book, Woman-Nation-State, Kirkpatrick notes that terms like state, civil society, nation, nationality and national identity do not necessarily mean or refer to similar things. Yuval-Davis and Anthias differentiate between the nation-state and civil society, and they express the view that ‘the state [is] a specific and concrete practice informed by and informing the nation as a more general and amorphous social and cultural process’ (5). In the nation, there is the possibility of border crossings and while the state may exclude women, there is a strong possibility of changing a national culture. The purpose of the book is to consider such possibilities.

Kirkpatrick makes the point that while Irish women’s history has been explored by academics, their literary history has not been covered. This has left poets like Eavan Boland without women mentors according to Kirkpatrick. The Irish woman writer with ‘experiences as outsiders in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, can provide valuable alternative visions of community, identity, and nation’ (6).

Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identity. Ed. Kathryn Kirkpatrick. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000. 1 – 12.

June 11, 2007

In Praise of Love

Not rated

By The Light of my Father’s Smile is held together by a construct that at first seems artificial initially: a father is looking down on his daughter after his own death.

She was not even aware at the time of my death that she missed me. Poor child. She did not cry at my funeral. She was a stoic spectator. Her heart, she thought, was closed. (3)

As an atheist, I found the idea of an afterlife from which the father was speaking a little disappointing. However it becomes far more interesting when reading on, because we discover that the tradition drawn on is that of the Mexican “Mundo” tribe, the philosophy of which features prominently in this book. On the one hand, the journey of the book is towards the reconciliation of the father and his daughers, Susannah and Magdelena. However the title does not only refer to the relationship of children and parents. It is also about the sublime experience of love-making, since the “Mundo” tribe, describe the sickle moon as a father’s smile blessing the procreative cycles, which allow sexual intercourse to be fruitful. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that sex for the daughters is a transgression and the journey towards reconciliation with the father is also a path towards healing their view of love-making.

In Walker’s vision, a reconciliation of familial and sexual difficulties can only be allowed when the whole family has recounted its narrative and is at peace. For this reason, the narration moves between relatives, who all contribute to the telling of the family story. Flashing back to Susannah’s and Magdelena’s childhood, the family voices tell how the parents are denied funding to study the “Mundo” tribe, ‘a tiny band of mixed-race Blacks and Indians’ due to institutional racism (14). However as a family linked to the black church, the family can become missionaries, in order to live in Mexico and secretly study the “Mundo”. Walker’s novel is ultimately a passing narrative that depicts the hateful atmosphere emerging in an atheist family passing as Christians. The father, named only with the formal title Señor Robinson, describes how he is ‘sucked into the black cloth’ of the priest’s costume and his only relief is secret, transgressive sexual pleasure when making love to his wife Langley (156).

Yet in hiding his own sexual pleasure, Señor Robinson also enforces his rule on his daughters, the uncertain Susannah and the more wayward, Magdelena. From Magdelena to Maggie to Mad Dog to June, Magdelena’s names map her course: from the innocence of childhood; to the adoption of “Mundo” peoples’ values (including a belief in the crazy wisdom of the mad dog); to the repression and domestication of her natural sexual instinct. Magdelena’s story is the most touching, as Walker conjures regret and the acceptance of lost ideals vividly.

Yet the centre of the story is Susannah, who must learn to forgive her sister for inadvertently driving the family apart. In the process of this education, Susannah takes on many mentors: women who have had to fight in a society that frowns on difference. For example, Irene, the Greek dwarf, escapes the confinement of her place in society, while Susannah’s lover, Lily-Pauline, manages to build her own restaurant empire in spite of her experience of rape, a loveless marriage and poverty. In the case of each woman, she is saved by the redemptive qualities of friendship and physical love, which leaves the reader like Susannah ‘peering through the mist of the orgasm itself […] seeking what is essentially beyond it’ (190).


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