All entries for November 2006

November 28, 2006

Jonathan Bate on Poetry as The Song of the Earth

Jonthan Bate

Human beings have always had a powerful will to survive like all other animals. Yet reasoning and speech (posed as Ratio and Oratio_ by the Romans) set them apart and make them human. Animals have languages too, as we have discovered more recently, so what else defines us as human? Bate offers qualities such as justice and liberty and the disciplines of science, philosophy and poetry. Yet it is these aspects of being human that have created a divisive view of nature influenced according to Bate by ‘Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism and which was further developed in Kantian idealism’ (144). Some scientists have challenged this view, such as Lamarck who suggested that all life began with the protazoa. However, while the rights of man were furthered during the Enlightenment, the rights of nature have been ignored.

The relationship between man and nature is a divided one and Bate sees this an inherent part first of Cartesianism and later of the modernist and postmodernist concentration on Oratio. Human beings do not pay so much attention to the external world and philosophical revolutions have severed man from nature.

This divide was a great concern for the Romantics, who saw poetic language as a special means of expression with the potential to reunite man and nature even if they are aware that often this desire is illusory. The ecopoetic is the poiesis of the oikos (home/dwelling place), but Bate wonders whether nature and culture can be brought together so easily. He notes that in writing his theories of evolution, Darwin drew on Malthus’ biological science. Can natural selection the occur in the cultural setting of human beings? Doesn’t the poem survive via a kind of artistic natural selection?

Bate now draws on the poet, Gary Snyder , who compares poetry with a climax ecosystem in which organisms recycle dead biomass. Snyder believes that ‘fruiting’ is the work of the poet and that poetry recycles ‘the richest thoughts and feelings of a community’ (Bate, 247). Snyder uses the metaphor here as a means to understand hidden connections between things, yet his use of metaphor in this way would be frowned upon by some literary critics as mystification. How can one make poetry into an ecosystem when there is a postmodern crisis of representation? Wouldn’t such a tactic be naïve?

Bate now turns to Paul Ricoeur’s essay, ‘Writing as a Problem for Literary Criticism and Philosophical Hermeneutics’ and Bate notes that one should not forget that ‘nature’ is a word not a thing. There is a gap between the presence of the signified and its representation through a signifier. Does this mean that uniting the mind with the external world is impossible? Ricoeur believes that poetic writing is a solution. The problem in most writing for Ricoeur is that it detaches the ‘said’ from the ‘saying’. In speech one can show the object to which one is referring, but in writing one cannot check its meaning. Bate writes: ‘The act of inscription complicates affairs, for it severs the link with the immediate life-world of the speaker’ (249).

Ricoeur writes that one cannot tie a written text to its author but nor should one sever it from its author. Good analysis always creates a dialectic between reader and author to create an overlap. Existence in a situation or moment is all that an animal knows, where as human beings have knowledge, history, memory, imagination, so that they can transcend the momentariness of the body. Most writing goes through the motions of reconstructing a reality, another moment in time or space, but while most poetry does not abolish referents, it is not descriptive writing. With reference to Martin Heidegger , Ricoeur suggests that poetry offers not the experience of a person but of a project and an alternative mode of being. If this is the case, then poetry can be ‘imaginary states of nature, imaginary ecosystems, and by reading them, we can start to imagine what it might be like to live differently on the earth’ (Bate, 250-251).

Snyder’s metaphor can be recuperated as symbolic expression and a mechanism for coping in the world. The world for Ricoeur, us a horizon of possibility or a dwelling place, yet Bate notes that it is not a site of reality but of the mind.

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite possibility of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. And if writing is the archetypal place of severance – of alienation – from immediate situatedness, then how can it speak to the condition of ecological belonging? Heidegger replies with the other half of the paradox: there is a special kind of writing called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth. (251)

Bate turns to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets for?’, noting how in this work Heidegger elides poets, the earth and problems of technology. He pauses for a moment to consider ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ also by Heidegger. This essay suggest that although technology is often seen as instrumental, this concept of mastering technology does not express its essence. Instrumentalism is based ‘on the ancient idea of causality’ and we are aksed to imagine the making of a silver chalice, which has a material cause (the silver), a formal cause (the chosen shape) and an efficient cause (the silversmith’s work). Usually the silversmith would be thought of as ‘the key cause’, but Heidegger believes the opposite (252).

The primordial meaning – the Being, or, more accurately, the being-there (Dasein) – of the chalice is its chaliceness. Its material, its form and its function are all part of that meaning, whereas the work of the silversmith though instrumental towards it, is deatched from it’ (253). In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates suggests that there are different kinds of poiesis or calling of things into existence. Heidegger describes poiesis as a bringing-forth into presence, yet the craftsman splits poiesis and physis (the principle of growth or change in nature), because poiesis is bringing a concealed thing out of its concealment, as a tree unconceals itself with blossom. Heidegger calls this kind of unconcealing Aletheia (the Greek word for truth). In contrast, technology represents a mode of revealing which is very human and necessary to human life. Technology tends to visualise nature in term of storing its energy. Heidegger sets up a contrast between a hydroelectric plant and a bridge; one harnesses nature and the other coexists with it. Modern technology sees nature only as a reserve to be used for human consumption. Bate notes that in his thinking here Heidegger is influenced by Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critiques of mass culture and to Marcuse’s theorising of one dimensional man as alienated from nature.

For Heidegger, technological man sees the world in terms of ‘enframing’, a mode of being in which everything is diverted into the system. Heidegger believes that this destroys unconcealed being. Society is dominated by the Styrofoam cup not the silver chalice. This order of being conceals the truth of things and the history of technology represents a loss of wonder and enchantment. After Christianity, nature was only on the level of ‘the created and science brought nature towards commerce and consumption. Man has lost touch with nature, but poetical brings back truth.

Human being must embrace technology to some extent since it is a necessary part of human life, but it need not be all-encompassing. Bate notes that ‘poetry is our way of stepping outside the frame of the momentary wonder of unconcelament’ (258). But why poetry? Bate suggests that language is ‘the house of being’ and the agent of ‘unconcealment’ (258). He adds: ‘By disclosing the being of entities in language, the poet lets them be’ (258).

Heidegger plays on a quote attributed to Holderlin , which states ‘ poetically man dwells on this earth. The quotation in fact came from Waiblinger’s novel Phaeton in which the mad sculptor protagonist is based on Holderlin. In the poem, the poet is taken out of slef to consider the external world and it is clear that human beings are both connected with and dislocated from the earth.

Bate wonders if ‘dwelling’ has a further meaning beyond simply ‘belonging’. Could poetical dwelling suggest a linguistic inhabitancy of a place? But surely one also feels prelinguistically and although poetry is constructed via language, it ‘is not merely language’, but the agent for invoking the essence of situations through what is unsaid, the silent and the white spaces on the page.

Heidegger reveals something about this in his essays, ‘Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry’ and ‘…Poetically Man Dwells’. Here dwelling is being open. Poetic dwelling is a’presencing not a representation, a form of being not of mapping’ (262). This view grows from Heidegger’s analysis of Holderlin, Trakl and Rilke , as well as Paul Celan . For Heidegger, the poem is like a peasant in the Black Forest; it inspires care, grounds and enables one to dwell. Heidegger sets the earth up in stark relief with the world, as representatives of respect for the difference of entities and an instrumental world view.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies represent respect for difference according to Bate. Rilke gestures not towards a Christian Beyond, but to ‘language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinization of the immanent world’ (263). Rilke’s angel represents ‘the transformation of the visible into the invisible, of erath into consciousness’ (263). The poet or poem is the angel offering an open mode of being and an explosion of the divide between nature and consciousness. In Rilke’s eighth Duino elegy, Bate sees the desire to reconcile naïve and thoughtful modes of being.

Bate notes that Rilek uses ‘America’ as shorthand for the technological and he suggest that in Rilke’s view, the poet ‘must stand in for the ancient Roman lares, those everyday gods who guarded hearth and home’ (264). Bate concludes that poetry will ‘haunt us with the lost feeling of what it might have been like to experience the ‘laral worth’ of house and well’ (265). In Rilke’s ninth Duino elegy, he expresses regret for things that are vanishing. Bate believes that the task of the poet is to sing of such things and on such a mission, it is important not to proceeds ‘with ambitions of conquest and mastery’ (265).

In speaking of man and nature, the poet offers an experiential journey rather than a descriptive one: ‘a poem may be a revelation of dwelling’ (266). Ecopoetics must be pre-political (and Bate recalls here that to be ‘of the polis’ means to be ‘of the city’). For Bate, ecopoetics’ ‘controlling myth’ is ‘pre-political and ‘prehistoric’ (266). So where do Green politics come into this? Shouldn’t literary critics bring a political agenda to their readings as Marxist and feminist critics do? Bate believes on the contrary that rather than setting up an agenda for policy change, critics should be reflecting on the idea of dwelling. But can ecopoetics really be separated from ecopolitics?

It was Bachelard who challenged the term, ‘ancestral’, in The Politics of Space and here he is employed by Bate to consider Heidegger’s reliance on the Black Forest. How do aliens, immigrants, the homeless and those discriminated against fit into Heidegger’s model? Anna Bramwell is cited as a critic who has found links between deep ecology and fascism and Luc Ferry’s essay, ‘Nazi Ecology’ from The New Ecological Order is mentioned. Bate notes that the translation of political ecology into politics is fraught and he thinks that Green politics should not fit into the usual political spectrum. He suggests that a politics of nature is ‘self-contradictory’ (268). Ecopoetics cannot become ecopolitics. Ecopoetics cannot fit into histories, theories or political systems because they are all ‘enframings’. Even a poem can be an enframing according to Bate when it ‘becomes […] a cog in the wheel of a historical or theoretical system’ (268). For Bate, the elision in Heidegger of Nazism and ecopolitics id a mistake which has been outlined by Adorno in Jargon of Authenticity. Ecopoetics must reject ‘enframings’.

Bate turns back to Celan at this point, a poet who knew of Heidegger’s mistake, yet was till fascinated by his notion of ‘dwelling’. In 1967, Celan visited Heidegger and the result was a poem entitled ‘Todtnauberg’. The poem shows the short-sightedness of Heidegger and also expresses a hope for him to be penitent. The description of the environment moves from clarity to darkness. Bate suggests that Celan is homeless and that the only place where he can dwell is in poiesis itself. Heidegger never really renounced his Nazism and made further mistakes in the 1950s such as the comparison of the mechanisation of agriculture to the holocaust. For Celan, the Jew is like the orchid that appears as a symbol in his poem; both orchid and Jew are unique and necessary to the human race. Interestingly, although the poem is based on Heidegger’s folly, Celan speaks the language of dwelling that Heidegger presented to the world. The orchid represents the unconcealment in the poem.

Bate now moves on to consider Edward Thomas and the poem, Home , a piece of analysis which is replicated in his earlier essay, Poetry and Biodiversity . Bate notes that Thomas was writing in a different context to Heidegger, but he still believes that Heidegger’s notion of dwelling is relevant here. In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and he writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (274). Thomas normally writes about roads and the lack of home, but in ‘Home’, it becomes a place of authentic being where the mind and nature, the self and the environment can be reconciled. In the poem, the cottage is not a house, but a dwelling, built by those with an awareness of dwelling, since ‘humans who dwell take only from their own locality; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (275). The sawing at the end of the poem does not represent human consumption but rather oneness, since ‘sawing’ is also a name for the song of the thrush.

Yet Bate has problems with Thomas’ presentation of the man and birds being under one nationality. How can the thrush represent itself as a national subject. Would nature even think in such human terms? Bate prefers the bird song of ‘Adlestrop’ in which ‘the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire […] are heard in a regional circle’ (276). Bate wonders whether ‘nation’ is in fact an appropriation to refer to biological regions rather than the nation state.

Bate links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to a Burkean mode of thinking, noting the immemorial quality of the subjects in Thomas’ poem. Burke argues that government should preserve the constancy of nature in the conduct of the state and he puts his faith in a kind of ‘wise passiveness’ (278). The earth’s decay and rejuvenation are a model for the evolution of government. In this case, nature’s models are reflected by society in the pyramid model of society for example or in the dominancy of patriarchy. However, Burke’s philosophy is also tied up with the transmission of governance and privileges and he endorses the sustenance of a system that maintains the privileges of the rich land-owning class. This is not reflected in nature where eco-systems must be shared.

Bate notes that Thoreau sees the owning of property as a dead weight that denies dwelling which is not the same as possession. In poetical dwelling, the emphasis is on the imagination rather than possession. Poetry is rather an ‘opening to the nature of being, a making clear of the nature of dwelling’ which is achieved through ‘a dividing and a destroying’ because we cannot escape Cartesian dualism (280). Writing occurs through the technology of pen and paper and it is always divided from ourselves. The poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home (oikos ) is a language (logos)’ (281). Ultimately though, Bate asks us to discover the poem as ‘not only a making of the self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and respecting of the earth’ (282).

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2000.

November 27, 2006

Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner

Writing about web page

Kristeva begins by offering some different definitions of the foreigner:
• ‘a choked up rage down in my throat’;
• ‘a black angel clouding transparency’;
• ‘opaque, unfathomable spur’ (1).

Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. (1)

Kristeva concludes: ‘The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to binds and communities’ (1). Kristeva wonders whether the foreigner figured as an enemy in ‘primitive societies’ can ever disappear from modern life. She decides to ‘recall a few moments in Western history when foreigners were conceived, welcomed, or rejected, but when the possibility of a society without foreigners could have been imagined on the horizon of a religion or an ethics’ (1). Kristeva ponders whether one can live with the other on a global scale ‘without leveling’ (2). In terms of religion and ethics, the foreigner has become a figure to be assimilated and this was one ‘rampart against xenophobia’ (2). After the crises in ‘religious and ethical constructs’, Kristeva sees the rise of nationalism as emerging from ‘the bourgeois revolution’ (2).

But it is on the basis of that contemporary individualism’s subversion, beginning with the moment when the citizen-individual ceases to consider himself as unitary and glorious but discovers his incoherences and abysses, in short his “strangenesses”—that the question arises again: no longer that of welcoming the foreigner within a system that obliterates him but of promoting the togetherness of those foreigners that we all recognize ourselves to be. (2-3)

Kristeva suggests that one must not ‘solidify’ the otherness of the foreigner, but ‘merely touch it, brush by it, without giving it a permanent structure’ (3).

Let us escape its hatred, its burden, fleeing them not through levelling and forgetting, but through the harmonious repetition of the differences it implies and spreads. Toccatas and Fugues: Bach’s compositions evoke to my ears the meaning of an acknowledged and harrowing otherness that I should like to be contemporary, because it has been brought up, relieved, disseminated, inscribed in an original play being developed, without goal, without boundary, without end. An otherness barely touched upon and that already moves away. (3)

Scorched Happiness

In this section, Kristeva explores the way in which the other is viewed. Kristeva notes that the foreigner has a certain perceived ‘peculiarity’ about him or her and that the features are ‘unlike all others’(3). One’s relation to the face is both one of fascination and rejection. Kristeva believes that the face represents ‘a crossed threshold that irremediably imprints itself as peacefulness or anxiety’ (4). The foreigner is a ‘border’ and ‘a standing invitation to some accessible, irritating journey, whose code the foreigner does not have but whose mute, physical, viable memory he keeps’ (4). The observer sees a ‘special, somewhat insolent happiness’ in the foreigner, a happiness of ‘tearing away, of racing, the space of a promised infinite’ (4).

The foreigner calls forth a new idea of happiness. Between the fugue and the origin: a fragile limit, a temporary homeostasis [the maintenance of a stable equilibrium]. Posited, present, sometimes certain, that happiness knows nevertheless that it is passing by, like fire that shines only because it consumes. The strange happiness of the foreigner consists in maintaining that fleeting eternity or that perpetual transience. (4)

The Loss and the Challenge

Kristeva now considers what drives the foreigner to leave his or her homeland, describing it as a ‘secret wound’ (5). Kristeva now descends into some whimsical suppositions such as the assertion that the foreigner has been damaged by ‘a loved and yet absent-minded, discreet, or worried mother’ (5). The foreigner’s father is supposedly inaccessible and it is interesting to note that here and in the rest of the book Kristeva thinks of the foreigner as a man, never a woman. This is a limitation of the book I think. It seems that Kristeva has based her suppositions on Camus’ The Outsider which she now mentions.

Suffering, Ebullience and a Mask

Kristeva turns to the difficulties faced by the foreigner who is impeded by ‘one mouth too many [Does this refer to languages!?], incomprehensible speech, inappropriate behaviour’ (6). Kristeva sees the prospect of wandering as a painful but productive process gesturing towards the ‘out of reach’ (6). Kristeva adds: ‘The pleasure of suffering is a necessary lot in such a demented whirl’ (6). It is supposedly part masochism that reconciles foreigners such as immigrant workers to their lot, a comment lacking in insight or perception. However, Kristeva does suggest that ill-treatment of foreigners strengthens the masking of a ‘a second, impassive personality, an anaesthetized skin he wraps himself in, providing a hiding place where he enjoys scorning his tyrant’s hysterical weakness’ (6). Kristeva writes: ‘The foreigner feels strengthened by the distance that detached him from the others as it does from himself and gives him the lofty sense not so much of holding the truth but of making it and himself relative while others fall victim to the ruts of monovalency [having a valency of one (atoms)].

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans Leon S. Roudiez. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1998.

November 22, 2006

Jazz and Poetry

On Sunday night I went to see the Dave Holland Quintet at Birmingham Conservatoire. I have been going to a number of jazz gigs recently – I saw Tony Kofi at the Fishguard Jazz Festival , Polar Bear were at the Warwick Art Centre, Ingrid Laubrock has been on the circuit too.

I have fairly ecclectic taste in jazz in that I enjoy many kinds of jazz from the extremely dissonant(Tony Kofi) to the occasionally dissonant(Dave Holland). Yet I tend not to love this sort of music because I find that on many levels it is cut off from an emotional base. (Then again I wouldn’t want the music to be emotionally obvious, which is why Tim Whitehead’s brand of jazz is not for me). I also tend to find some dissonant jazz rather predictable; the music builds and builds to a scramble of dissonant solos then fades back into a melody. (Is this to do with the production of jazz musicians via the academic learning?) The jazz that I really love is not emotionally obvious, not predictable nor is it lacking in dissonance or melody. This is why one of my favourite bands around at the moment is Polar Bear. (Ingrid Laubrock is in this vein too.)

I began thinking about these issues in relation to poetry and I wondered if jazz could be compared with poetry. On the far end of the spectrum, there is poetry that is detached from emotion rather like extremely dissonant jazz. This kind of poetry often challenges its own discourse: the nature of narrative, grammar and language itself just as some kinds of jazz challenge the notion of melody and the discovery of moods and feelings in music. This kind of art has an important place in the scheme of things, but the kind of art that uses melody and dissoance, sense and nonsense is always going to be more appealing to me as a feeling human being.

Listen to Polar Bear here:



Also see Ingrid Laubrock’s website and Acoustic Ladyland are good too. These are all member of the F-IRE Collective , which includes the Jonathan Bratoeff Quintet coming up at the art centre on Sun 26th.

Kirsti Bohata on Postcolonialism and Wales

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Postcolonialism Revisited

Bohata begins by quoting Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, in which he suggests that postcolonial nations are minorities in geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South. Bohata thinks that there is a need to challenge such ideas. In fact postcolonialism is a network of thematic concerns and complex discourses and as a nation in the process of re-imagining itself, Wales might fit into such a category.

Postcolonialism refers to countries in a situation of post-independence, but one problem identified with the term is that it suggests that colonialism is immediately over ignoring the phenomenon of neo-colonialism. The problem with fitting Wales into the postcolonial category is that it does not have ‘a progressive-linear model of moving from colonization (and colonial literature) to decolonization (and postcolonial literature)’ (3). Bohata wants to fashion postcolonialism as a pluralistic, umbrella-like category.

There are countries whose early histories include conquest and colonization prior to the period traditionally addressed by postcolonialism, and whose subjugation or marginalization may indeed continue right through and beyond the eras of overseas mercantilism, colonization and imperialism. In these cases we find a long history of cultural assimilation and/or political co-option, yet also a persistent, self-defined sense of cultural difference and, later, of nationhood. (3)

Bohata gives examples such as:
• Wales and Ireland;
• Slovakia and the Czech Republic;
• and more nations of the former Hapsburg Empire.

However, some studies, such as The Empire Writes Back by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, suggest that the complicity of regions like Wales and Scotalnd with British imperialism deny them access to postcolonial models. Yet Goodwin calls this a kind of victimology. Others present the argument that ‘any manifestations of imperialist tendencies in Wales were necessarily manifestations of Anglicization and therefore not actually Welsh at all’ , for example Ned Thomas in The Welsh Extremist (4). Bohata criticizes this approach noting the ‘flawed and simplistic division between ‘Welshmen’ and ‘Britishers’ ” (5). One cannot make such an assertion when Welsh people colonized Patagonia, parts of the United States and Australia.

The categories of colonizer and colonized are, of course, far more complex than the simple binary suggested by these two labels might suggest. As the present study argues, the case of Wales is an excellent example of how postcolonial paradigms may be employed, as Goodwin suggests, to reveal the ways in which the Welsh have been subjected to a form of imperialism over a long period of time, while also acknowledging the way the Welsh have been complicit in their own subjugation and in the colonization of others. (5)

However, Bohata notes that often the subject of Wales is missed out entirely and that Britishness and Englishness become interchangeable as descriptions of an Anglo-centric culture as described by Robert Young. Bohata states: ‘The postcolonial idea that ‘British is a misleading label that disguises English cultural hegemony and a project of assimilation is a very interesting one’, and she refers to J.R. Jones’ Prydeindod (6). For J.R. Jones and others, the term ‘Britsihness’ can be re-appropriated and ‘chosen by those wishing to claim they belong to the island without identifying themselves as English’ (6).

Wales is sometimes discounted from postcolonial studies because of its proximity to England in comparison with countries that are distant from the ‘mother country’ (7). There are of course differences in the two situations. Bohata asserts that a situation of proximity means that ‘border-land becomes imbued with enormous significance’ which is a situation ‘suited to be interpreted according to postcolonial paradigms of hybridity, which emphasize constantly shifting transcultural production’ (7).

One definition of colonialism sees its beginning with ‘the ‘Great Discoveries’ of the sixteenth century’ in which case Wales would be excluded (8). Bohata rejects this definition and suggests that it is wrong to think that Wales must be postcolonial in the same way as India , Zimbabwe etc: ‘Wales, as already observed, does not fit neatly into a linear-progressive model of colonization, anti-colonialism and decolonization/independence; but, as postcolonialism has the capacity to recognize, structures of influence and subjugation are not necessarily coterminous with formal colonization or decolonization (8). Bohata also notes that in Wales the fight has often been against cultural imperialism.

Bohata now begins to consider relations between English and Welsh attitudes which make Wales’ situation a postcolonial one:
• Matthew Arnold’s suggestion that the Welsh language prevented British unity and that it needed to be eradicated;
• Matthew Arnold’s exoticisation of the Celtic genius at Oxbridge;
• the 1847 Report into the State of Education in Wales (nicknamed ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’ or ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’) which depicted ‘the Welsh language, Nonconformity and Welsh women in particular, as degenerate’ (10);
• and in the evidence of Welsh writing.

Bohata notes an emphasis on naming oneself in Welsh literature and she notes: ‘The power
to name oneself and one’s landscape is crucial to the sovereignty of the individual or nation, and the renaming of colonized territories like America and Australia, and people, such as African slaves, played an important part in the domination of these territories and people’ (11). Bohata notes that the Welsh were given names like ‘John Jones’ to preclude the use of the traditional naming ‘Gwyn ap Dafydd’ (‘Gwyn son of Dafydd’).

It is at this point that Bohata begins to consider the status of Welsh writing in English and she states the following:

Even within Wales itself, the status of Welsh writing in English is generally very low: it makes little of no appearance in secondary or further education. The lack of prestige accorded to the academic research of this body of writing further marginalizes this literature, and courses on Welsh writing in English are far from universally available in universities in Wales, let alone in the rest of Britain (although seminars on Irish, Scottish and other world literatures in English are relatively commonplace). (…) The protestations that Welsh writing in English is not of a high enough standard to be studied at university will be recognized as expressions of ignorance by anyone familiar with eth best of this literature, but such objections are also based upon a traditional approach to literature which ignores the vast array of cultural and literary theory that may, along with learning to appreciate literary writing. Such protestations and exclusion from the ‘English canon’ as taught at universities and protected by a complicit publishing industry will, moreover, be a familiar echo from the recent history ( and indeed the ongoing situation for many) of colonial and postcolonial writing from across the globe. (12)

Bohata, Kirsti. Postcolonialism Revisted: Writing Wales in English. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004.

November 21, 2006

The Origin of The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo - The Two Fridas

I must have been six years old when I had an intense experience of an imaginary friendship with a little girl .. roughly my own age. On the window of my old room, facing Allende Street, I used to breathe on one of the top panes. And with my finger I would draw

a “door”........

Through that “door” I would come out, in my imagination, and hurriedly with immense happiness, I would cross all the field I could see until I reached… (245)

a dairy store called PINZON… Through the “O” in PINZON I entered and descended impetuously to the entrails of the earth, where “my imaginary friend” always waited for me. I don’t remember her appearance or her color [sic]. But I do remember her joyfulness – she laughed a lot. Soundlessly. She was agile and danced as if she were weightless. I followed her in every movement and while she danced, I told her my secret problems, Which ones? I can’t remember. But…

from my voice she knew all about my affairs. When I came back to the window, I would enter through the same door I had drawn on the glass. When? How long had I been with “her”? I don’t know. It could have been a second or thousands of years… I was happy. I would erase the “door” with my hand and it would “disappear”. I ran with my secret and my joy to the farthest corner of the patio of my house, and always to the same place, under a cedron tree, I would shout and laugh Amazed to be… (246)

Alone with my great happiness with the very vivid memory of the little girl. It has been 34 years since I lived that magical friendship and every time I remember it it comes alive and grows more and more inside my world.

PINZON, 1950. Frida Kahlo. (247)

Frida Kahlo

Letter to Diego Rivera from Frida Kahlo

Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or love.
To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your anguish, and within the very beating of your heart.
All this madness if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion.
I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth.
I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors [sic], because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.


Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Trans,. Sarah M. Lowe. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. 205/42.

Extracts from the Diary of Frida Kahlo

I was lying – flaccid – running – revelry / without story reason / great haste mirrorlike / cardboard doll (204)

My skirts with their lace flounces and the antique blouse I always wore (...) paint the absent portrait of only one person. (209)

I don’t know what my mocking dream thinks. The ink, the stain. the shape. the color (sic). I’m a bird. I’m everything. without any more confusion. All the bells. the rules. the lands. the big grove. the greatest tenderness. the immense tide. grabage. water jar, cardboard cards. dice digits duets vain hope of constructing the cloths, the kings. so nails. the thread and the hair. the bantering nerve I’m going with myself. (213)

Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain. (216)

The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s (242).

ourselves – / variety of the one / incapable of escap- / ing to the two – to the three – / to the usual – to return to the one . / Yet not the _ sum_ / (sometimes called God (...)) (250).

I have been sick for a year now. Seven operations on my spinal column. Doctor Farill saved me. He brought me back the joy of life. I am still in a wheelchair, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk again soon. I have a plaster corset even though it is a frightful nuisance, it helps my spine. I don’t feel any pain. Only this … bloody tiredness, and naturally, quite often despair. A despair which no words can describe. I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again. (252)

The quiet life.. / giver of worlds.. / Wounded deer / Tehuanas / Lightning, grief suns / hidden rhythms (272)

Frida Kahlo. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Trans,. Sarah M. Lowe. London: Bloomsbury, 1995.

Paul de Man on ‘Autobiography as Defacement’

Writing about web page

Paul de Man’s essay on ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ focuses mainly on Wordsworth, but he also makes some interesting general points about autobiography.

de Man begins by suggesting that the treatment of autobiography is ‘confining’ and that it makes many problematic assumptions. One problem is ‘the attempt to define and treat autobiography as if it were a literary genre among others’ and the difficulty in it being a genre that supposedly brings together history and the aesthetic (919). Autobiography may seem whimsical and indulgent in comparison to other genres of art

Can autobiography be written in verse? Even some of the most recent theoreticians of autobiography categorically deny the possibility though without giving reasons why this is so. Thus it becomes irrelevant to consider Wordsworth’s The Prelude within the context of a study of autobiography, an exclusion that anyone working in the English tradition will find hard to condone. (920)

de Man concludes that it is redundant to define autobiography as a ‘generic definition’ (920). Perhaps a comparison of fiction and autobiography might be more fruitful, since autobiography depends on ‘actual and potentially verifiable events’, doesn’t it (920)? Could it be ‘a simpler mode of referentiality, of representation, and of diegesis’ which is ‘rooted in a single subject as in Rousseau’s Confessions? de Man is unconvinced.

We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium? (920)

Proust quotes Gérard Genette’s analysis of Proust, which suggests that Proust’s writings are ‘an endless discussion between a reading of the novel as fiction and a reading of the same novel as autobiography’ (921). de Man concludes that autobiography is ‘a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts’ (921). This is not to say though that all texts are autobiographical, but rather the importance of autobiography ‘is not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge—it does not—but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and of totalization (that is the impossibility of coming into being) of all textual systems made up of tropological substiutions’ (922).

de Man, Paul. ‘Autobiography as Defacement’. MLN. Vol 94, no. 5, Comparative Literature. (Dec., 1979), pp. 919-930.

November 16, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on ‘Autobiography and Self Portrait: Images of Self, Images of the Other’

Frida Kahlo - Fulang Chang and I

From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’ in Textured Lives

Schaefer compares Kahlo’s self-analysis with Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and sees painting for Kahlo as a kind of therapy. In her paintings, Kahlo presents her own history, past and present, to create a kind of autobiography in art. Schaefer quotes Paul de Man who describes autobiography as ‘textual production’ (see ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN 94 (Dec ’79): 919-930). Equivalent to written autobiography, these paintings are not a developmental narrative but offer ‘a permanent lack of equilibrium (22). Unsurprisingly, Schaefer plunges back into autobiographical readings suggesting that Kahlo’s ‘physical appearance’, Mexican background and her life experience were the wounds to be examined in Kahlo’s autobiography (23).

Now Schaefer considers Kahlo’s painting about Diego Rivera, who appears, according to Schaefer as an object of ‘obsession/possession as well as the Other’ (23). She refers to Self Portrait as a Tehuana and Diego and I as examples. These paintings also feature the third eye as a means to look in and out. Enhanced perception can also be seen in:
Thinking About Death (1943):
Sun and Life (1947):
• and The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Senor Xólotl (1949).

Schaefer wonders if Kahlo’s desire for a third eye echoes Mexican politicians’ desire for insight into the future of their country and she cites Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick Schaefer ponders whether Kahlo was ‘becoming something akin to a martyr to a past era, caught between the celebration of the individual subject of “stardom” and the defence of collective utopian revolutionary ideals’ (24).

In any case, Kahlo makes a world of her own body and a metalanguage to go with it that includes: ‘native Tehuana costumes, tears, eyebrows transformed into birds’ wings, skeletons, fetuses [sic], hair ribbons, tropical flora and fauna, and the splitting or doubling of her own image’ (24). Her presence is ‘visible, concrete’ (24).

In thinking about the split between European and Mexican cultures, Schaefer quotes Janet A. Kaplan who has studied the 30s and 40s Mexican art groups: the European set (Varo, Horna, Carrington Gerszo) and the muralistas (Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco). Kahlo’s adoption of Tehuana costume is very significant in the light of these two rather antagonistic groups.

Kahlo often seeks identity in relation to others in her paintings: for example the conflict between men and women in A Few Small Nips . Often these paintings evoke a tension between the subject as autonomous or as passive object.

Kahlo often seems to observe herself as an object, not a subject, experiencing a detached consciousness of her own persona. ‘Frida’, with her unblinking gaze, swirling hair, joined eyebrows and tortured body, becomes the public identity of the real woman Frida Kahlo, much as her beloved Mexico reduces and institutionalizes the Revolution into icons for mass identification and consumption. (28)

Schaefer quotes Berger when he writes about the public and private split in twentieth century women. Similarly Kahlo ‘acts and simultaneously perceives herself acting; she paints and describes the process of painting through her product; she feels pain and watches herself react’ (28). However, Kahlo’s quest ‘to attain the paradise of a complete mental and physical body’ is also a ‘search in Mexico for a utopian social body after the Revolution’ (28).

Claudia Schaefer on Apocalypse and Rebirth: Pain as Filter for the Observation of Reality

Frida Kahlo

From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

As Frida Kahlo is a sufferer (of the trolley accident, of polio and scoliosis), Claudia Schaefer identifies her in this essay with Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suffered rheumatism all his life. Here is what Schaefer believes they have in common:
• the experience of ‘a physical apocalypse’ that effected their art;
• and the relation to drugs and addiction (Coleridge’s theorisation about drugs and art and Kahlo’s alcohol and morphine abuse).

Schaefer quotes from Coleridge’s letters when he writes about illness and pain as a ‘Storehouse of wild Dreams for Poems, or intellectual Facts for metaphysical Speculation’ (qtd. by Appleyard, 72). Schaefer remembers the figure of the Ancient Mariner who is figured as a wandering Jew. In telling his tale over and over, the mariner recreate moments of pain in the hope that they will be recognized by the listener. Schaefer relates this to the trials of pilgrims.

For Kahlo, her permanently open physical and mental wounds are displayed as communication of that pain to the viewer and to engage in dialogue with her own dilapidated body and mind. Schaefer notices that Kahlo’s body is never alone but usually amongst people, animals, objects or characteristics of the landscape, yet it is the body that performs ‘the shared spectacle of suffering’ (15).

This self-consciousness confirms and substantiates (…) that Kahlo has extended the passive biological aspect of human existence to the active remembrance and consideration of human biological functions in the context of sexual activity and the ever-narrowing sphere between life and death. It might even be concluded that Kahlo creates an aesthetic of pain in which eroticism and death, or suffering and pleasure, are as closely entwined as she and Rivera, or as she and nature, are represented in her paintings. (15)

In painting the suffering Frida, ‘she’ is brought into existence and Schaefer sees this in terms of Bataille’s theorizing about acts of substitution where the individual is reconnected to a feeling of continuity (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Life-force is close to the threat of death in this figuring apparently. Schaefer thinks that Kahlo’s accident brings sex and death together.

Schaefer notes, however, that the pain for Kahlo is real and the physical pain enacts mental pain at her burdening with a disabled body (?!). Kahlo paints as an outlet for this pain: ‘The suffering image […] is narcissistic in its self-examination and exhibition, yet it is also cathartic in its public display of self-affirmation’ (16). Schaefer refers here to paintings that show Kahlo’s despair at the failures to repair her wounded body. In these works, Kahlo’s body is both a passive object of scientific study and a subjective, autonomous being: ‘The eyes – being both observer and observed, looking outward yet into a mirror – are always gazing at themselves, as does the artist for the creation of her self-portrait, to discover the identity being presented to the public and to look simultaneously at the observer, possibly attempting to analyze the reaction to their appearance or solicit complicity in consideration of this dilemma. (16)

In parallel with the viewer/object binary are juxtapositions between the US and Latin America. Schaefer refers to “Self-Portrait on the Border Between the US and Mexico” (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (1933). Schaefer’s interpretation of My Dress Hangs There is rather predictable: ‘the abandoned native costume (an empty tradition)’ (17). What makes her think that it is abandoned? Schafer concludes sensibly though that there is ‘no bedrock on which to foster the construction of cultural, political, or personal equilibrium’ (17).

Schaefer compares Kahlo’s art with the theory of Susan Sontag suggesting that both offer ‘science and technology as vehicles for opening up, for opening what has been a closed wound’ in women’s bodies and social bodies (17). Schaefer lists relevant works here including:
Frida and the Abortion (1932),
Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938),
My Birth (1932),
The Two Fridas (1939),
The Broken Column (1944),
Tree of Hope (1946),
• and Viva la Vida (1954).

These paintings reflect the illness that Kahlo suffered and the loss of people in her life, apparently. Schaefer imagines authorities suggesting that Kahlo gives up her body to pain and that her paintings resist this by recreating herself in her paintings as visible in society. Schaefer quotes Elaine Scarry who suggests that the body in pain must always be self-obsessed. Schaefer sees this in What the Water Gave Me (1938/39) and My Dress Hangs There.

There is also the presence of violence towards the body. Kahlo tried to attempt suicide and Schaefer sees such attempts as a means to be free of the burden of the body (!?). However, they can also be seen as affirmative of existence and proof of life. Schaefer here notes the speculation that Kahlo ‘demanded or submitted to more surgical procedures than absolutely necessary’ (19) (!?). Schaefer believes that Kahlo wanted to prolong her role as victim and/or martyr. Schaefer continues in this speculative, biographical vein noting that the frame of Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect her view of the world as an invalid.

Thankfully, Schaefer now returns to Coleridge noting that Stephen Bygrave in an essay on that poet describes Coleridge’s egotism as active and asserting the self rather than passive. Schaefer believes that this is true of Kahlo also.

Schaefer now turns to the influence of ex-voto paintings , storytelling Mexican murals and Michoacan ceramics . Somehow she now turns to the cult of celebrity that influences Kahlo and then to her paintings as images of vulgar and earthy topic.

Schaefer believes that Kahlo splits her personality in two: ‘I’ and ‘she’. Once more she descends into biographical detail trying to guess when this first ‘happened’ as if it is not an artistic conceit. She comes to the boring conclusion that one half is male, the other female etc. etc. The self of the outer world allows Kahlo to step out of her pain. She cannot escape herself, but she can study it.

Kahlo also paints with consciousness of the viewer and the painting’s effect on him or her. Schaefer even goes as far as to suggest that Kahlo wants ‘healing or acceptance’ from the viewer (21). The paintings can:
• ‘punish or self-punish’ (identifying with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (21);
• ‘evoke sympathy’ (21);
• ‘reconcile lovers’ (21);
• ‘seduce the public’s gaze’ (21);
• ‘express some kind of public repentance or visible reflection of her grief (guilt)’ (21);
• represent ‘pain as a salable product in society’ (22);
• and perform ‘the reification of her own image’ (22).

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.


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