David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: robert musil (page 2 of 7)

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

From Robert Musil’s Diaries, 1919

I do not ever know if it is my good spirit or my evil spirit that speaks these words within me. But it simply has to get out.

Since I awoke to life I have always seen things in an “other” way. That means: in places, clear criticism, in places, clear suggestions, well thought through. Some I have written down and published. But much more has remained at a level of dark antipathy. Half raised up, then sunk down into obscurity. Intuition sensing far-reaching connections that the understanding has not followed.

The understanding that has had the benefit of scientific training is loath to follow if it has not been able to build itself bridges for itself whose load-bearing capacity is calculated exactly. Here and there I completed the calculations for a single area of such a bridge; dropped the work again in the conviction that it is not possible, after all, to finish it. I could sit down and gather material in the way that it has been done in similar assiduous, large scale experiments — Wundt, Lamprecht, Chamberlain, Spengler.

But what remains when this is done? When the breath has evaporated with which one tried to bring such fullness to life, there is nothing but a dead heap of inorganic material.

The five-year-long slavery of the war has, in the meantime, torn the best piece from my life; the run-up has become too long, the opportunity to summon up all my forces is too short. To renounce or to leap, whatever then happens, this is the only choice that remains.

I renounce any systematic approach and the demand for exact proof. I will only say what I think, and make clear why I think it. I comfort myself with the thought that even significant works of science were born of similar distress, that Locke’s. . . .  are in fact travel correspondence.

I want to develop an image of the world, the real background, in order to be able to unfold my unreality before it.

Robert Musil, Notebook 19 (1919)

Profiles in Type L: General Paul Van Riper

A few months back, in Battle Lines, I talked about the divide between the free-market technocrats and the conservative old boys in American society, dubbing them Type L and Type C respectively. To review:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic. “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic. “The powerful should have the power.”

(Remember, I don’t identify with either of them! They’re just all we have.)

I had no trouble coming up with big-name examples of Type C (see: nearly our entire political system and corporate overlords), but had a harder time thinking of big-name Type L’s who weren’t associated with technology or economics. Part of this is that these are probably the only relevant places in society where Type L’s can thrive without being utterly annihilated by cronyism. The space for someone like Arnheim in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities doesn’t really exist, and I’m not sure if it ever did. Musil had to contrive a situation for brilliant (but oh so wrong) thinkers to be in positions of political power, and while the voices of the time speak through his characters, I suspect his characters may be improvements on their models, no matter how much he damns them.

Perhaps some CIA wonks might qualify, along the lines of George Smiley, but somehow I doubt it.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley - Insert Star Wars Reference Here

But tonight I thought of someone in the military who fits the bill: Paul K. Van Riper.


Paul K. Van Riper

Van Riper first came to notice when he very publicly failed to give the military the results that they wanted in their Millennium Challenge 2002 (note corporate brand). The war game was supposed to prove the validity of Rumsfeld’s super new strategies of high-tech, low personnel forces, and Van Riper took on the “Red Force,” some unnamed Middle Eastern player.

Hellbent on showing Rumsfeld how stupid he was, Van Riper used all sorts of clever gambits to render the high-tech stuff useless. In exchange, the Army cheated, ignoring his orders, handicapping him and resurrecting US forces to ensure the US won against Red Force. Van Riper, already retired, went public:

Van Riper said this approach ran counter to his notion of how an experiment should function. “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out,” he said. [Type C never says this.]

Van Riper said the blame for rigging the exercise lay not with any one officer, but with the culture at Joint Forces Command. “It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s embedded in the institution.” [Who is he, David Simon?]

He was highly critical of the command’s concepts, such as “effects-based operations” and “rapid, decisive operations,” which he derided as little more than “slogans.” [Type C never ever says this.]

“There’s very little intellectual activity,” Van Riper said about Joint Forces Command. “What happens is a number of people are put into a room, given some sort of a slogan and told to write to the slogan. That’s not the way to generate new ideas.”

Van Riper’s single-mindedness can sometimes rub other experiment participants the wrong way, said a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with the Marine. “What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.

“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Van Riper is probably about ten miles to my right on all sorts of issues, but his very visible break with the US military and civilian leadership in this exercise and again shortly after the start of the Iraq war sets him aside from the military leadership as a type. So in a Frontline interview, while he praises Colin Powell even as he trashes McNamara and Rumsfeld, he also says anti-cronyistic things like this:

I see inside the United States Army the germs of a second intellectual renaissance that’s approaching these problems. And they’re not caught up in the sloganeering that most of the Joint community’s caught up in. They really are studying; they’re having conferences. The conferences aren’t love fests, where they put out some idea and try to get people to sign up to it. It’s a real debate, real argument, trying to synthesize some new knowledge out of it.

Is there anything in the current Defense Department that would lead you to believe those ideas will flourish?

I see nothing from the highest levels of the Pentagon that would lead to this. What I see is a support of the Joint Forces command by edict being told to be innovative. You cannot demand innovation. You can’t simply say to an organization, as Mr. Rumsfeld apparently did to the Army: “Be more innovative. You’re not innovative enough. Service Chief, you’re out of here.” That’s not the way to do it.

This is, of course, exactly what so many non-technical executives say to their R+D people, and this is exactly the response that the R+D people always have, right down to the ridicule of love fests. Type C’s have love fests because they are celebrating all being rich white guys; how can they not have love fests when they get together? They certainly would not let ideas get in the way. They say stuff like this:

Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”

Van Riper would not use the phrase “the key to military transformation,” and I bet he never had a nickname like “Buck.” (He’s clearly more Sterling Hayden than George C. Scott in the Buck/Rip(p)er dichotomy.) And I bet he hates William “Buck” Kernan. We have an apparently near-perfect recreation of that sort of love fest Type C in David Rasche’s Rumsfeld/Bolton character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:

These sorts do not like to lose wargames, ever. Reality must shift to accommodate them.

[This may be why I am more sympathetic to the analytic philosophy community than a lot of bloggers out there. The only thing worse than a room of people fighting over abstract issues and shutting each other down is a room of people all agreeing with the most powerful one there, be it Rumsfeld or Derrida. This is an oversimplification, obviously, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.]

Van Riper, who has been retired for many years, was last heard from in 2006 calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. What took him so long? Though I share some of Gary Brecher’s respect for his cleverness in U Sank My Carrier, my intention is not to praise Van Riper. I suspect he adheres to a form of realpolitik that I would find morally repugnant. I suspect he has his own sort of obsessive myopia indicated by tidbits like this: “General Van Riper would spend his chow break by issuing speeding tickets all across MCB Quantico.” I suspect I would find him rather scary. But if you are looking for the counterweight to the current ruling class of CEOs and politicians, people like Van Riper are probably the best you can do.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

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