Posts Tagged ‘Georg Trakl’

“A Metaphysics of Negativity”: Brothers Robert and Thomas Harrison discuss Expressionism and the Year 1910

Thursday, June 21st, 2018


Thomas Harrison

When Halley’s Comet passed over the world in 1910, newspapers prophesied doom. The era was already overshadowed by social, spiritual, and political unease. That year, Sigmund Freud published Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and formulated his first sketch of the Oedipal complex. Rainer Maria Rilke published his only novel, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter completed his thesis and shot himself, one of the era’s many suicides. Meanwhile, Arnold Schoenberg was emancipating dissonance with his Theory of Harmony, which was written in the summer of 1910. The following year, Oswald Spengler would begin his landmark Decline of the West.

“The nihilism of the First World War was presaged, summarized, and mourned in the music, poetry, and thought which a great many artists and thinkers produced in the year 1910,” said Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison. “It seemed to play out all the worst nightmares that had obsessed the Expressionists.”

Just warming up with Oedipus

This episode of Entitled Opinions at the Los Angeles Review of Books is a family affair. Said Robert Harrison, “Brothers punctuate cultural history. We have the Brothers Grimm, the Marx Brothers, the Schlegel brothers, the Goncourt brothers. It so happens I have a brother, too, who like me, is a professor of literature who has written a few books.”

In the introduction to his 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (University of California Press, 1996), UCLA professor Thomas Harrison wrote, “Nineteen ten is the spiritual prefiguration of an unspeakably tragic fatality, heard in the tones of the audacious and the anguished, the deviant and the desperate, in the art of a youth grown precociously old, awaiting a war it had long suffered in spirit.”

First and only novel

In this fraternal conversation, Thomas and Robert Harrison discuss leading figures in the umbrella movement called “Expressionism,” including poet Georg Trakl, painter Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Filippo Marinetti, as well as Rilke, Spendler, Schoenberg, and others.

What do the Expressionists say to us today? “Of course, the darkness of their vision didn’t turn a lot of people on,” explains Thomas Harrison. “During the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, we had to forcibly leave that stuff behind. But don’t forget that every time you leave something behind it comes back. So it came back in World War II. Human nature does not change, although we think we’re getting better and more rational. The depths of the soul that they probed are the same depths that people try to keep hidden and secret, over and over and over. While it may not be not much fun to listen to Schoenberg’s atonal music, it’s a reminder that the beast we have within us will stick its head up the minute he can get away with it.”

Listen to the podcast of this fascinating Harrison-on-Harrison discussion here.


More potent quotes from Thomas Harrison:

“These artists were perhaps the most ethically and philosophically committed generation of artists since the Romantics.”

“They developed a metaphysics of negativity. Being itself was considered a rotten set-up.”

“We no longer share this negative metaphysics today. We do everything we do to ignore it and forget about it and put it under the rug – to repress it again.”

“Like being alive twice”: Hass, Zagajewski, Cavanagh, and Hirsh on Czesław Miłosz — this time in Queens

Friday, March 25th, 2011

The crowds are unending

I’ve been to New York City four or five times in my life – but I’ve never been to Queens.  Somehow I didn’t expect the constant river of people to continue beyond the borders of Manhattan, but it did.  Getting on a Queens bus, I saw the line behind me grow steadily longer and longer, increasing rather than diminishing as people climbed onboard.  Finally, until the weary bus driver closed the doors on protesting people, still trying to get on.  That’s usual, he told me.  The line doesn’t end.

So that’s one reason why I was 45 minutes late to the discussion about Czesław Miłosz at Queens College on Tuesday night. Two days ago, I posted about same cast of charactersRobert Hass , Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh — let me do so again, with the addition of poet Ed Hirsch, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Here are a few notes from the discussion (and apologies for not having time to polish these nuggets):

This time at Queens College

Adam Zagajewski discussed the Miłosz’s polyphony and his  “incredible ambition to grasp the world.”  The enormous range of points of view and voices within his work is disconcerting to many readers, who expect “one voice that’s recognizable in every poem,” the unity you find in such poets as Georg Trakl, for example.

Robert Hass recalled Miłosz writing at night, and thinking he had at last captured reality with his words – only to wake up the next morning, reread what he had written, and see he had been “beaten back into the pen of literature.” “He was tormented by the way our experience is lost to us,” said Bob.  “He found time itself unbearable.”

In praise of polyphony

Ed Hirsch commented on the “tremendous internal argument in his work” – in which he would often “criticize the poet who wrote the last poem.” Miłosz’s polyphony is one reason “so many readers and critics latched onto the idea of witness” in his poems.  His reputation as “poet of witness” to two totalitarian regimes has obscured his reputation as a metaphysical poet and a poet of … well, a poet of wonder, really.

The discussion turned to Miłosz’s unfortunate early reputation in the U.S. as a political theorist, thanks to Captive Mind. It’s a book not as well thumbed today as it was a few decades earlier, but Clare Cavanagh pointed out its unusual legacy – for example, in giving us the term ketman, which Miłosz claimed to have rescued from Persia.  Clare, however, searched assiduously on the internet for its supposed Islamic origins and could only find references to Miłosz’s work.  (I have a different memory of finding a few of the references she was seeking – but I’ll have to check again.  The references may be lost in the cyperspace flotsam and jetsam – as endless as the bus lines of Queens.)

Ed called Captive Mind “a remarkable work of historical consciousness.”

“For us, it’s crucial because he anatomizes how people fell into it,”  he said. However, its relevance  for younger readers may not be evident — “one of the problems is that you have to understand what communism is.”  One of history’s terrible lessons that may be lost on a younger generation.

"Like being alive twice"

Bob hailed Captive Mind as “an enormously vivid and readable book … powerful and still relevant.” Young people today caught instead in the “foment of small imperialisms” – but so were the Persians who originated the term ketman, I would argue, and a small tyranny can be as oppressive and barbarous as a large one.

The four writers recalled the arc of his career.

The decades in America prior to the 1980 Nobel were years of excruciating loneliness. Adam recalled that when he turned sixty, Miłosz didn’t receive a single card or greeting.  Bob was told by two people that he used to write letters to himself, so that he would get mail.

Yet, said Bob, when he joined the Berkeley faculty, Miłosz immediately used his funds to hire a secretary and dictated The History of Polish Literature — a work that began to put Polish poetry on the map of American consciousness.

A rebuke instead of blessing

Adam recalled, in his youth, being one of a group of young poets who wrote to the maestro for a blessing.  Instead, they got a rebuke.  He told them they were behaving like “flies in a battle” and urged them towards distance and restraint. “He became a metaphysical poet, but I think he was a little jealous of those lesser poets who touched their own city.”  In other words, he envied those poets whose daily reality included the places where they grew up, who did not partially live in demolished worlds.

During the question period from the large crowd, Ed was asked what poem of Miłosz’s did he wish he himself had written.  “That’s a puzzle,” Ed hedged, then came up with two: “Bypassing Rue Descartes” and “Guilt.”

Bob Hass was asked what it was like spending so many years translating Miłosz.  He responded in an instant: “Like being alive twice.”

Next installment from NYC:  Ed Hirsch, Alyssa Valles, and Adam Zagajewski honor Zbigniew Herbert at Poets House.