the search after truth by Andrew Hart
January 24, 2010, 12:00 am
Filed under: essays, philosophy

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
-Keats, “Ode on  Grecian Urn”

I get that feeling every once and a while, as I’m sure everyone does.  I get it when I think if that faintly falling snow at the end of “The Dead,” the raining flowers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the last movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto.  It must be the sublime, because it transcends appreciation and exists in the realm of the wordless.  It is tears in the corners of eyes, hair raised on the back of the neck.

The only thing like it is the feeling of simple possibility that the beginning of a truth suggests.  I conflate the mere insinuation of further truth with that sublime feeling.  When I’m on on the brink of learning something, things I already imbue with the weight of importance I also lend an optimistic completeness.  Yet those things also remain transcendent, unable to be fully possessed.  I’m reminded of a line from Hart Crane’s “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge:” like a movie that runs all hours, things are “never disclosed,” but are still “hastened to again.”  The promise of coming full circle brings us back to something that can never be complete.

That sublime feeling must be part confusion, because central to it is a contradiction.  We stand in front of a thing to be known, thinking that a proper delineation between thing and not-thing is all that is required to get our hands around it.  But we also anticipate those spiny borders between thing and not-thing, the places where we lose our place, find a new origin, begin again, double back.  Each possibility is equally tantalizing; each possibility echoes the other and creates that feeling.

The point of origin is the place where we comprehend both the boundaries and where we will break them.  It is where incomplete completeness is possible.  It is not truly a beginning, but as Derrida said, an “event,” a “rupture and a redoubling.”  It calls on itself just as it calls us to press forward.

I get that sublime feeling in the search after truth, because each attempt is a brilliant compression of living contradiction, which might be the most beautiful truth and true beauty of all.


tartuffe and the root of hypocrisy by Andrew Hart
January 22, 2010, 3:00 am
Filed under: essays, literature

Richard Wilbur precedes his amusing and finely honed translation of Tartuffe with a startling revelation: Tartuffe is not a religious hypocrite.  Generations of readers have glossed over this simple fact that becomes a provocative avenue for exploration once aired.

For those not familiar with Tartuffe, the plot is darkly comedic.  Orgon, the head of a French family, is taken in by Tartuffe, a swindler who curries favor by pretending to be an overly pious man.  The unsuspecting Orgon sponsors the devious Tartuffe, much to the chagrin of most of his household, who can see Tartuffe’s true colors.  Orgon reneges on his promise to allow his daughter Mariane to marry her love Valere, and instead promises her to Tartuffe.  But Tartuffe actually has designs on Orgon’s voluptuous young wife, Elmire.

Mariane’s maid Dorine sets into motion a plot to unmask Tartuffe as a swindler, but it is foiled when Orgon’s hotheaded son Damis accuses Tartuffe too soon, leading Orgon to disown him and believe Tartuffe instead.  Tartuffe convinces Orgon to will the deed of the estate to him, and uses some incriminating documents as blackmail in an attempt to kick Orgon out of his home.  But just when it appears that Orgon will be arrested for treason, Tartuffe himself is taken to jail, recognized by Louis XIV as a notorious swindler who once went by another name.

Wilbur asks us to concentrate on the last plot point.  Tartuffe is unmasked as a confidence-man, a notorious all-around swindler who used religion in this instance to gain the trust of Orgon.  Hypocrisy is his game, not his nature.  His nature is deceit in all forms, and he stays true to form throughout the play.  So Tartuffe — the character marked in the dramatis personae as “hypocrite” — is consistent.

What do we make of a play featuring an un-hypocritical hypocrite?  It tugs at the very root of hypocrisy itself.  Hypocrisy does not stem from evil deeds in Tartuffe; we can trace its origin to less obvious sources.

In final response to Mariane’s vehement protest against marriage with Tartuffe, Orgon instructs her to “mortify [her] flesh” and go through with the union.  The meaning is clear: Orgon, faced with the unknown of old age and loss of control over his family, prefers that Mariane marry Tartuffe and become old instead of marrying Valere to stay young.  Allying with Tartuffe is not an end, but a means to Orgon’s attempts to undermine his family to maintain his own happiness.

That Orgon’s personal happiness is his only aim further manifests itself in his refusal to believe his son, wife, maid, and daughter when told of Tartuffe’s designs on Elmire.  The views are so stilted that Orgon can hardly believe it when his own mother parrots them after events have conspired to expose Tartuffe’s treachery.  Orgon’s mother is as convinced of Tartuffe’s saintliness as she is hateful and bigoted, so her over-the-top defense of Tartuffe to her son after Tartuffe’s betrayal is clear stands as an especially hilarious reminder to just how self-serving Orgon’s actions were.

This central unmasking of in Tartuffe is its greatest and most subtle stroke.  The play reveals that the desire to do evil does not make the hypocrite.  The root of hypocrisy is fear and insecurity, and the hypocrite of the play is not Tartuffe, but Orgon himself.

the death of the great american poet by Andrew Hart
January 13, 2010, 1:24 am
Filed under: essays, literature, poetry

What happened to this Great American Poet whose bloodline seems to have run dry after Wallace Stevens?  Some people will tell you that American poetry these days is written by academics for academia.  That it’s dark, depressing, and generally just impossible to relate to.  Poetry, they say, needs to return to lyricism, return to happiness, return to romanticism, return to anything to get away from what it’s turned into today.  Most of all, poetry needs a return to structure.

Structure is always what reconciles the human with humanity.  We use it to relate what can’t ever be related: that thing inside of us isn’t quite the same when we put it in everyone else’s terms.  A sonnet is a stricter imposition of structure on that thing.  Impose less and maybe rhyme a little bit, go in and out of iambic pentameter when it suits; invent forms like Eliot, invent orders like Moore.  But no matter what, the thing is still never the same in any common terms.

The past doesn’t care; it will always impose itself.  Its very words are icebergs.  Look into them long enough and somewhere from the cold deep a meaning surfaces to inform a reconception.  Emerson told us to look within, trust ourselves, and listen to the vibration of that iron string.  But what is “trust,” what is “iron,” what is “string” without the past speakers who decided that those sounds and letters would mean those things?  To have us look within, Emerson forced us to look outside.  And it could not have been different.

Words can only mean if they’ve meant before and will again.  In our indebtedness to the past for its words, we allow its manifold meanings free reign over our understanding.  Words mean all of their meanings, and try as we might we can never narrow them.  And so poetry is the art in which you always try to mean for yourself but never do.  Frost saw it: for him, a poem was an icecube on a stove; you could place it, but you never knew where it would end up.

High modernist poetry tried to get closer to the thing by avoiding structure.  Words for Eliot were fragments shored up against an ultimate ruin.  Moore imposed her own arbitrary rules.  Cummings created a grammar.  There was a collective feeling of accomplishment, the idea that we could look to a community of poets and academics to answer our own inner questions.

But the collective push modernism was not the answer to the problem of reconciling the thing inside with structure.  Apollonaire saw his century raise up like an airplane, like Christ.  The century flew like nothing natural, historical, religious, technological.   Apollonaire’s speaker ends up walking home in the bright morning from a prostitute’s bedroom, the sun above him a severed neck as he thinks of the fetishes and idols that line the bed he will soon crawl into to sleep away the morning.  Collective modernity can pull itself up and everything else with it, but the communal progress will crash down when the individual poet recognizes that the thing inside is always already unable to be spoken.

Since then, we’ve had confessional poetry, free verse, and even a return to formalism.  Where are we today?  Poetry is increasingly about the inner thing, and continues to shirk the easy relations to common humanity that satisfy us.  American Poets are not dead, they just alienate us with our constant cravings for structure.

But we live in a world of text, and too many feel its pull to declare the death of the Great American Poet just yet.

Recommended reading:

Guillame Apollonaire’s “Zone
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land