Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Field Guide to Melancholy by Jacky Bowring

Melancholy, said Wordsworth, is a "luxurious gloom of choice". Unlike depression, we choose to be melancholy, paradoxically deriving pleasure from feeling faintly sad. "Melancholy slows things, allows for percolation, facilitates solitude and solace for imagination," says Jacky Bowring in this dispassionate defence of the malady, madness, affectation - melancholy has been called many things over the centuries, but somehow eludes definition.
It is not strictly grief or sorrow or mourning, explains Bowring, but a complex constellation of moods. In modern times, psychiatrists have diagnosed it as "abnormal bereavement" or "psychotic depression", inelegant solutions for something that Bowring seeks to reclaim as "a rich dimension of human existence".

She is an advocate of melancholy, convinced of "the benefits of the pursuit of sadness". She rejects the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing by health professionals and sidesteps concerns about a global increase in mental illness by insisting that melancholy is not depression. Only once does she ask the pertinent question: "Is the increase in melancholy an authentic response to the pressures of contemporary existence, where it might be considered a pervasive mood?" Could it be that the politics of fear creates a media-induced state of national melancholy? And if so, to what end? Bowring mentions several philosophers, but a notable omission is Spinoza, who regarded melancholy as evil, because it reduces our power to act.

Is melancholy a sickness of the west, something we bequeathed to the rest of the world, like smallpox? Not at all, says Bowring, who reveals that melancholy is universal. Alongside the more familiar ennui of the French and Weltschmerz of the Germans, she looks at the Chinese bei qiu, the Japanese kanashii, the Portuguese saudade, the Russian toska, the Spanish duende and the Turkish hüzün. It appears that every culture knows what melancholy means, even if it's hard to pin down in any one language.

In the arts, it would seem, melancholy reigns supreme. Thanks in large part to the legacy of late romanticism, a questionable connection between melancholy and literary genius continues to this day. It became a feigned literary affectation as early as the 16th century. "Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir, your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir," says Jonson's amateur poet in Every Man in His Humour. "I am melancholy myself divers times, sir, and then do I no more but take your pen and paper presently, and overflow you your half a score, or a dozen of sonnets, at a sitting."

In film, Bowring singles out Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky as notably melancholy; in art, Edward Hopper, and Rachel Whiteread's Ghost; in popular music, Tom Waits and Nick Cave; in classical music, Hildegard of Bingen, Messiaen and Górecki. She also discusses the highly effective use of decayed film stock in avant-garde movies such as James Elaine's Melancholia and Bill Morrison's Decasia, as well as the unique kind of melancholy evoked by literary works which employ grainy black and white photographs to evoke a mood of loss and yearning, such as André Breton's Nadja and WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.

This thoughtful and sensitive book remains a survey of the scene rather than a definitive study. However, Bowring has succeeded in her aspiration to create something like an Observer's Guide to melancholy. Melancholy assumes many guises, she explains, each anatomised here: religious melancholy, love melancholy, the melancholy of nostalgia or of boredom (acedia), and a whole tradition of "heroic melancholy" of which Batman is a recent exemplar. There is even what Walter Benjamin called "Left melancholy", whereby a leftist with a mournful attachment to a dead idea becomes an in-activist.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson

Think of the worst conflicts of the first world war and you are unlikely to settle upon the 12 battles of the Isonzo, each covered in gory detail in this excellent history. As Thompson observes, "the ratio of blood shed to territory gained was even worse than the Western Front", because the proto-fascist General Luigi Cadorna forced wave upon wave of ill-equipped Italian peasants to advance along the Isonzo valley, only to be mown down by Austrian machine-guns. The Italian campaign ended in defeat, while the postwar settlement soured relations with the Allies sufficiently for the emergence of Mussolini. Thompson's reading of the Italian political scene makes clear how the war discredited democracy and led to the rise of fascism. He also discusses in some detail the poetry of the war, from the "psychotic" fascist propagandist Gabriele D'Annunzio (once hailed by Proust and Joyce as a genius) to the moving war poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti, and the febrile verse of Marinetti, for whom the war was "the most beautiful Futurist poem".

In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming

We all need to affirm our legitimate strangeness, but eccentricity for its own sake is an unedifying spectacle. Genuine eccentrics are unaware of their condition; the remainder desperately seek eccentricity. For every truly inspired English eccentric like Sir Isaac Newton or Henry Cavendish there's another who dresses as a baked bean or has a hedge shaped like a whale. England is famous for its eccentrics, says Hemming, who unearths several from our distant past, such as Cull Billy and the Green Man of Brighton, but we live in an era of meddling officiousness and today the great English eccentric is in danger of becoming an endangered species. Hemming keeps up a stream of comic patter, dropping in quotes from Hazlitt, Orwell and, er, Paxman along the way, but somehow his interviews with various English eccentrics, including Chris Eubank, Vivienne Westwood and Pete Doherty, only serve to dampen one's enthusiasm for the type. Are English eccentrics so great? After all, the French have the Marquis de Sade and surrealism; we have the Marquess of Bath and Edith Sitwell.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Jack Spicer heard voices. “The poet is a radio,” he declared in one of his late poems, picking up transmissions from some “thing from Outside”, which he sometimes called a ghost or even a Martian. Often these voices were sinister and threatening, as in the poem “Magic”, which begins, “Strange, I had words for dinner,” and ends “Stranger, I had bones for dinner.” This in itself picks up on a pun (“Po-etery”) from a previous poem, but it spooked Spicer. “When ‘Magic’ came I was terrified,” he admitted. The voices came best of all when he was drunk. “Giving yourself to poetry,” he announced, “is like giving yourself to alcohol – most people can’t or are afraid. I’ve given myself to both.” Before he died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 40 in 1965, his last words to his friend Robin Blaser were: “My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.”

Wesleyan University Press have done much to rehabilitate Spicer. They gave us the troubled, unlikable figure that stumbles through Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998) by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, seemingly hell-bent on alienating everyone around him. It is a detailed and compelling portrait that never quite accounts for the humour and charm of the poems. Wesleyan also published the four lectures that Spicer gave shortly before his death as The House That Jack Built (1998), edited by the poet Peter Gizzi. Now Gizzi and Killian have teamed up to produce My Vocabulary Did This to Me, a definitive, one-volume introduction to Spicer’s work. It should ensure that Spicer is once again regarded as a major figure in the post-war San Francisco poetry scene.

Although the early poems are interesting and cast light on Spicer’s later development, it is the San Francisco section of this book, the serial poems beginning with After Lorca (1957), that really matters. Here we see Spicer developing his own unique tone: a halting lyricism, tinged with loneliness and ambivalence towards poetry itself. This mature style is probably best exemplified by the haunting, pessimistic poem that begins the “Thing Language” section of Language (1964).

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

Spicer is also a master of the throwaway opening. “Heros eat soup like anyone else” is how one poem starts, while another begins

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.

Spicer has sometimes been regarded as a satellite of Robert Duncan, his fellow poet in the so-called San Francisco Renaissance. The Spicer-Duncan relationship was painful and provocative, and Spicer has been described as Caliban to Duncan’s more urbane Prospero. Certainly, Spicer knew how to curse, dropping the occasional “Fuck / You” or “Screw you” into his verse. Both were open-form poets, Spicer conceding that Duncan was the better craftsman. Yet he also observed that “Robert became a whore”, because he sought publication and networked. “Damn it all, Robert Duncan, there is only one bordello,” he mocks in “Dover Beach”, a good example of his taste for literary allusions and borrowings.

Spicer was deeply conflicted about making money from poetry (a problem few poets are forced to wrestle with today, admittedly). Fiercely regional, and living most of his life in the Bay Area, he regarded the publicity-seeking Beat poets as enemies on his turf and refused to prostitute his art by selling his small-press published books in the City Lights Bookstore (until the very end of his life, when he was desperate for the cash). “Number one, don’t sell out as a poet,” he insisted in the last of his lectures. My Vocabulary Did This to Me includes the recently discovered poem “Golem” (1962), in which Spicer accuses the Greek poet Pindar of being “a publicity man for some princes”, putting a postmodern spin on the poet’s dilemma

The very words I write
Do not purify. Are fixed in the
language evolved by thousands
of generations of these princes –
used mainly for commerce

Spicer’s mature poems – especially Language (he was a researcher in linguistics at UC Berkeley) and Book of Magazine Verse (1965), which perversely consists of poems composed for magazines that had rejected his poems – proved an important inspiration for a younger generation of Language poets. His work anticipated a new attitude to language as no longer a means of self-expression but a vast, impersonal inherited network of signs that speaks through us. Yet Spicer’s last poems only point the way, emphasising the materiality of language and the loss of the poet’s ego through dictation from Outside; they do not deliberately court unreadability like some Language poetry. Spicer’s verse resists assimilation into the mainstream and is uncompromising, but for all his talk of expunging the ego it remains deeply personal. As Gizzi and Killian point out in their introduction, Spicer was interested in “the blurring of letters and poems”, a poetics of “correspondence”, and many of his poems take the form of urgent and arresting arguments with lovers, ex-lovers and friends. A Spicer poem often begins with a lyrical statement and ends in anger, as if reflecting his own yearning for conversation and a companionship that never comes or never stays for long.

There is an essential melancholy in Spicer’s work. “Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry,” he says in After Lorca, an attitude undoubtedly informed by his sexuality. “Homosexuality is essentially being alone,” he declares in the poem “Three Marxist Essays”. If a poem, to borrow William Carlos Williams’s phrase, is a machine made out of words, and the poet, following Spicer’s lead, is a machine receiving voices from Outside, there would seem to be little space left for human experience. Yet in the poem “Sporting Life” Spicer seems to acknowledge the limitations of his carefully cultivated machine aesthetic, observing that “The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios / don’t develop scar tissue.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chasing the Flame : Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power

With his tailored suits and tanned good looks, Sergio Vieira de Mello was sometimes compared to James Bond, but a Bond steeped in Sartre. Studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, he was beaten by riot police during les évènements. He joined the UN in 1969, immersing himself in war zones in Cambodia, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. This Pulitzer prize-winning biography leaves one in no doubt as to his bravery and dedication. Yet as Samantha Power makes clear, he was also willing to compromise with some unsavoury characters if it meant saving lives. He was fiercely anti-American, and it is a testament to his pragmatism that he agreed to leave his elevated position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to become UN envoy to Iraq, especially as America had previously scorned the UN in the run-up to the invasion. In 2003 the 55-year-old diplomat was killed by a massive truck bomb in Baghdad. Could he have made a difference in Iraq? We will never know. As a devastated Kofi Annan observed, "I had only one Sergio."

Arcadia : The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England by Adam Nicolson

At first glance this book looks like an exercise in stately home fetishism as Nicolson (who lives at Sissinghurst Castle) waxes lyrical about the Pembroke estates at Wilton from the 1520s to the 1640s. Yet Nicolson is not wholly in thrall to the English ruling class, and sympathises with the yeomen, husbandmen, labourers and shepherds who led lives of intense hardship, making regular payments to the lord of the manor for the privilege, while the landowning classes pursued fanciful dreams of Arcadia, a lost world of ease and contentment, beauty and bliss. He even reminds us that the trespassing menfolk of Washern were hunted and slain like animals by the 1st Earl of Pembroke in the very park where Sir Philip Sidney later fantasised about Arcadia. Rich in detail and atmosphere, with some lush nature writing, Arcadia is destined to sell well in National Trust bookshops throughout the land, but it is not so much the strict, hierarchical know-your-place conservatism of the Arcadian ideal that fascinates Nicolson as its fragility in the face of an implacable, levelling modernity.