Recently in Gordon, George, Lord Byron Category

Gauguin_portrait_of_the_artist_with_the_yellow_Christ.jpg
Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing

| No Comments
Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgToday is the closing date for the "NotAboutKarenBlixen" exhibition at The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark.  A collection of collaborative work between Kenyan, Danish and other artists from around the world, "NotAboutKarenBlixen" featured an installation performance art piece called "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" by Gillion Grantsaan (pictured above) and Ato Malinda (pictured below).  Gillion and Ato constructed a shanty outside Karen Blixen's writing studio (pictured below), an artistic home for homeless real and imaginary writers in migration.  Gillion and Ato invited a number of writers (including myself) to collaborate on the installation.  Below is the piece I wrote in connection with the installation, which - consistent with the installation's themes of nomadism, immigration, displacement, alienation and assimilation - I developed in Denmark, wrote in Italy, and mailed to the The Karen Blixen Museum from England.

Maya Alexandri's stream-of-consciousness meditation on themes relating to Gillion Grantsaan's and Ato Malinda's installation "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" in the "Not About Karen Blixen" show at The Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, Denmark

Ato_Malinda&Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgBoats are destabilizing.

On a boat, humans come closest to experiencing the movement of the planet.  Standing on the deck of a water bus in Venice, with the deck rocking beneath me, I place my backpack at my feet and worry about it slipping between the slats of the gangway gate and sinking.  I watch an older couple standing at the wheel of a speedboat passing us.  Neither member of the couple looks to be in great shape, and I am amazed that they remain upright as the lagoon bounces their speedboat into an imitation of an airplane taking-off.

Perhaps because of their ability to connect humans with the reality of the earth's motion, boats are vehicles of momentousness.  Pirates sail on boats.  Slavers carried their human cargo across the world on boats.  Karen Blixen sailed to Kenya, and Paul Gaugin to Tahiti, and King Claudius banished Hamlet to England by boat.

Hamlet was kidnapped by pirates.

Slave_ship.jpgAt Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Hamlet's abode, the Maritime Museum contains a small visual memento of Denmark's slave trade: a painting of a slave ship below deck (pictured right).  Black people, naked, peer out from where they are stacked in horizontal berths.  Descending into their squalor are a black cabin boy and a black steward, both impeccably dressed.  The painting is beautiful: did the artist think he was documenting a horror?  

In a later room in the Maritime Museum, in an exhibit about Danish emigrants to the United States, the display is accompanied by the following blurb:

In the early days of emigration the voyage was made by sailing ship with the emigrant supplying his own food and drink, which had to keep for up to six weeks without refrigeration.  Added to this was the lack of ventilation and bad hygiene, not to mention seasick passengers.  Even though steamships and increased competition gradually improved conditions one can still safely conclude that a trip in emigrant class was often like a trip on a slave ship - an experience for life!
Whatever the phrase, "experience for life," means, emigrants, colonists and slaves all have it.  Transplants, (mal)adjusters, uprooted, disconnected, identity-inventors - all.  The difference is choice and humanity.  Those who choose to uproot themselves may be crazy, but they're not property.

Paul Gaugin was crazy.  Although he may have been born with a predisposition in this direction, at his death, the cause of his mental illness was syphilis.  Who knows how long syphilis addled his brain?  

When he arrived in Tahiti and learned that missionaries had banished paganism and converted the island a hundred years previously, he was despondent.  He carved his own pantheon of pagan gods.  He was going to out-savage the savages.  He was determined to paint like a primitive.  

What did Gaugin think "painting like a primitive" meant?  Was he seeking a visual palette free from the overbearing influences of the Old Masters, of the Romantics, of the Impressionists?  Was he enraptured by the stereotype of pure, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, uncivilized primitives?  Did he think painting like a primitive was beautiful?  Or was he just crazy?

Mette Gad probably regretted that Gaugin was a colonist (a pariah within the French colonial system in Tahiti, perhaps, but still a colonist), and not a slave.  A crazy husband with no property was no good to her and their five children, freezing in Copenhagen while Paul was sunning his syphilitic phallus in Tahiti.  At least if he'd been a slave, she could have sold him.  (Being married to Paul Gaugin must have been an experience for life.)

Paul Gaugin never enriched Mette Gad, though.  Carl Jacobsen was another matter.  Gaugin's Danish wife correlated with a disproportionately large number of Gaugin's paintings landing in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum in Copenhagen housing Jacobsen's collection.  In the Glyptotek's sophisticated, well-appointed nineteenth century art wing, Gaugin's paintings don't look particularly primitive.  They don't have the appearance of paintings best viewed on a boat.
 
Shack.jpgI wonder if Karen Blixen ever saw the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection.  If she did, what did she feel?  A visual artist before she was a writer, Karen, too, had painted "primitives."  She, too, had sailed on a boat to live among primitives.  She, too, sought to understand their customs, religion and mindsets.  She, too, had syphilis.  She, too, was a prominent authority on whom Danes relied for information about primitives.  Did she see Paul Gaugin as her kindred?

Boarding my own boat - my imagination - I slip my toes inside Karen Blixen's feet and peer from her eye sockets at Paul Gaugin's painting, "Manao Tupapau."  No, he is not my kindred.  He is not noble; he represents nothing beyond himself.  He's a sexual adventurer among the savages.  I know his kind, and he wouldn't know the Crusades from the Renaissance.

(Isn't there always dissension among the ranks?  Geniuses tend to despise each other.  Byron and Shelley would've eventually hated each other if their premature deaths hadn't prevented them from doing so.  Wordsworth's ultimate treatment of Coleridge is abominable.  Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn't remain friends.)

Imagining Karen Blixen viewing the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection, I am in a kind of matryoshka boat: a boat, within a smaller boat, within a boat smaller still.  In the boat of my imagination, I sail on a boat of another sort: Denmark.  For islands are boats more than other landmasses are.  And the ground in Denmark is moving perceptibly. 

Homogenous cultures breed conservatism that may mask the movement beneath the feet, but in the end it emerges because it exists: boats are destabilizing.  Shaky ground is not the place for an unstable structure, but instability is relative.  Paul Gaugin no doubt sailed on leaky ships, the Venetians rebuilt the Palazzo Ducale on its fire-damaged hulk, and a wobbly ladder didn't prevent Gillion and Ato from constructing the shack.  Instability, after all, lasts only until it is assimilated or eclipsed by the next cataclysm.

Every life - if we're lucky - includes more than one experience for life.   

(All photographs taken by Maya Alexandri)

Starter of conversations, killer of poets

| No Comments
Samuel_Johnson_NYT.jpgPublisher's Weekly recently hosted a panel as part of its "Think Future: What's Next in Publishing" discussion series on the question of "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?"    

I didn't attend the event, and I don't know what was said, but a fair guess is that the discussion, like the animating question, was of a piece with other expressions of the massive insecurity in the industry right now: will people read books in the future?  Will book stores continue to exist?

Not being one who views change as synonymous with annihilation, I am comfortable projecting the continued existence both of books and book stores.  My relaxed optimism extends with even more confidence to book reviews - though I might wish it to be otherwise.  Here's why:

Short of folks stuck in ski chalets during blizzards who are driven by boredom to peruse the only book on hand, people's choices in reading materials are rarely random.  They're usually guided by some previous knowledge about the book.  Their friend recommended it.  They've heard good things about the author.  The book got good reviews.

Although a friend's recommendation, or a prior positive experience with the author's work, will likely remain more influential than reviews are to an individual's purchasing decision, reviews are nonetheless likely to continue to be important for sales.  Reviews start a public conversation about a book, as well as setting the agenda for that conversation, and such conversations prime an audience's appetite for the book.    

Conversation, whether in meat-space, virtual space or mental space, is vital for any book marketing effort because conversation is the social corollary to the private act of reading.  Most of us are social animals and most of us, therefore, want to talk about what we read.  In communities with a relatively high level of literary output, but without apparatus for sparking public conversation about books - for example, in Nairobi, where I've never seen a single book review, bookstores lack the space to accommodate book readings and the Internet hasn't picked up the slack - books don't sell.

So conversation is necessary.  And, though any glance at the line-up of television pundits might lead one to another conclusion, conversation (even in America, even today) is a skill.  Good conversationalists have thought-provoking, witty and passionate things to say.  Poor conversationalists - which includes most of us at some moment or another - can nonetheless function tolerably if they have the decency to quote (with or without attribution) that which they've heard good conversationalists articulate.

Reviewers, if they excel at their jobs, are good conversationalists who provide book-meat to the public for roasting, mastication and regurgitation.  Reviewers thus serve a critical social function that will in some form transcend the rapid (and foolish, in my opinion) disappearance of book review sections in newspapers.

The question to my mind, therefore, is not, "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?" but "What are the media platforms from which book reviews will be disseminated?"  

If the answer is (as it likely will be), "the Internet," then we will probably see a similar pattern to that which has emerged elsewhere online: faced with overwhelming choice and no editorial filter, netizens will default to trusted familiar voices.  We will see, not a diminution in the importance of book reviews for book sales, but an increase in the importance of certain online reviewers' opinions about books.

And as anyone with even passing familiarity with Lord Byron's poem "Who Kill'd John Keats?" knows, concentration of the critics' power is never a positive development.   

(Image of Dr. Samuel Johnson, in Harold Bloom's words, "the most eminent of all literary critics," from The New York Times)  

A literary lover

| No Comments
Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from Byronetc.com.)

An industry with the loyalty of Iago

| No Comments
Iago.jpgThe New York Times magazine recently ran a profile of James Patterson, the world's best-selling author, in which his former publisher at Little, Brown, Sarah Crichton, "says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson's books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz."

Lacked the nuance and originality of Dean Koontz?  That's like saying he lacks the grammatical competence of Sarah Palin. 

Whatever the legitimacy of the criticism (and I don't know because I haven't read Patterson), I have to wish - however naively - that publishers were more publicly supportive of their authors.  

Of course, authors can generate terrific material insulting their publishers (for example, Lord Byron's "Dear Doctor, I have read your play").  But such artistic impishness doesn't strike me as being as shockingly discourteous as Critchton's remark.  John Murray, after all, made money off Byron's poem mocking him.

(Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Iago from the Victoria & Albert museum)

"Dear Doctor, I Have . . ." issues with rejection

| No Comments
I love George Gordon, Lord Byron's poem, "Dear Doctor, I Have Read Your Play."  It's funny, fun to read out loud, fun to imagine a play that Lord_Byron.jpg"purges the eyes and moves the bowels" - moves the bowels?!  Apparently, the good doctor of the title (Byron's friend, John William Polidori) invented an entirely new (and not-to-be-seen-again) genre: the laxative drama.

But, much as I believe the English literary canon would be diminished for its absence, I have to wonder why Lord Byron wrote the poem.  The man, after all, was a super star by 1817 when he wrote "Dear Doctor," by which time he'd long been famous for accomplishments like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the unpublished (but no lesser known) I Had An Incestuous Affair With My Half Sister.  

"Dear Doctor" allows the reader to infer that recent criticism of Byron's writing might have been a reason for the poem's composition:  

There's Byron, too, who once did better,
Has sent me, folded in a letter,
A sort of - it's no more a drama
Than Darnely, Ivan, or Kehama;
So alter'd since last year is pen is,
I think he's lost his wits at Venice.
Nonetheless, such cause seems a tad inadequate.  Byron was not a man unfamiliar with rejection.  His clubfoot, for instance, did not provoke an outpouring of acceptance and tolerance from his peers.  And his personal life - incest, anal sex, divorce - seems to have generated sufficient expression of social condemnation to convince him to go into self-imposed exile.

Moreover, whatever the critics opined about his work, Byron was never at a loss for either publishers, fans or sales.  

So why should Byron care about a rejection from John Murray, much less care enough to write a rhyming verse poem about it - a poem that, even for as skilled a hand as Byron, surely required more effort than the dismissive sigh of, "Well, that happened, moving on," that characterizes (for example) my reaction to rejection from publishers?

Plainly, something needled Byron into diverting poetic energies from the Romantic imperative of composing verses as aids to seduction and devoting those energies, instead, to a Philip Roth-like anxiety orgy of venting/moping/carping.  I can think of at least three motivations for this trek off Byron's beaten path:

1.    Byron was outraged, not by rejection of him, but by rejection of his friend, John William Polidari.  The poem, in this interpretation, was an expression of loyalty and friendship.
2.    Despite his experiences, Byron was unusually sensitive to criticism, to the point that he'd stoop to bashing easy targets.  According to this theory, the poem is an expression of insecurity (and possibly immaturity).
3.    Byron felt a heroic passion to expose the brutality of the publishing industry, which was inhumane in its treatment of authors and destructive to the cause of literature.  In this scenario, the poem is an expression of reality.

In proffering this critique of the publishing industry, my own motivations are, of course, transparently obvious: to bring healing to the ill.  Out of concern for what appears to be a plague of industry-wide, chronic constipation (of which reflexive rejection is a symptom), I am pioneering the laxative blog post.

(Image of Lord Byron from The Independent)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Gordon, George, Lord Byron category.

Gilbert, Elizabeth is the previous category.

Gordon, Jaimy is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04