Category Archives: art

Poetry has a right to children

William Empson wrote the following “pat little theory” in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) about the limitations of 19th century poetry, but it seems like it still might apply to contemporary “new sincerity” art, or any work seeking to evade cynicism on one side and elitism on the other.

For a variety of reasons, they found themselves living in an intellectual framework with which it was very difficult to write poetry, in which poetry was rather improper, or was irrelevant to business, especially the business of becoming Fit to Survive, or was an indulgence of one’s lower nature in beliefs the scientists knew were untrue. On the other hand, they had a large public which was as anxious to escape from this intellectual framework, on holiday, as they were themselves. Almost all of them, therefore, exploited a sort of tap-root into the world of their childhood, where they were able to conceive things poetically, and whatever they might be writing about they would suck up from this limited and perverted world an unvarying sap which was their poetical inspiration. …  An imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.

If you are trying to escape irony and phoniness and defensiveness, you have no choice to seek some original source of truth and warmth and goodness, which inevitably leads to the blankness of childhood, that golden era of one’s personal consciousness when hermeneutics were blessedly beyond and trust was an instinct rather than a choice. If this glorification of childhood is not to lead to the conclusion that is better to die a child than corrupt one’s innocence, youth has to be framed as a nostalgic tourist attraction, a place we can get away to when we can spare the time, and thereby remember what it is like to be before forgetting.

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From Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality

The shift Fried details below seems important, the fact that representations of reflexivity can become suddenly loaded and problematic for a society. The ability to let go of oneself can be reified and neutralized, circumscribed — or it may be glamorized and disseminated as an ideal.

That absorption — the antithesis of self-conscious reflexivity — can itself become a self-conscious artistic trope that appealed deeply to critics like Diderot, who were so concerned about the corruption of spontaneous emotion, suggests something about our own era and the threats it poses to spontaneity.

The escape from self-consciousness as long been an attractive fantasy, one that defies being represented without being turned into its opposite, strategic deployment of the signs of absorption. This is a small example of the larger 18th century concern with sensibility: how to represent emotions and display one’s emotional sensitivity without invalidating the displays by being too calculating. The erosion of tradition — the rise of social mobility — made ritualized emotional displays suddenly suspect. They became a politicized point of class conflict between aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie. Who exhibited “real” taste and feeling, and who was decadent or false?

The following has an obvious application to the problem of ubiquitous lateral surveillance that social media is again making us acutely aware of:

Certain stylized representations of absorption negate the distracting and disrupting presence of the ever-implied observer. When Greuze’s melodramatic paintings unfold before our eyes as if we are not there, the thrill is akin to confessional behavior in social media making us into voyeurs.

This doesn’t seem especially paradoxical to me. Our absorption in the confessional, absorbed behavior of others makes us simultaneously forget ourselves — the painting effaces us so we can experience the bliss of self-forgetting.