In my last post, I modeled a way of holding a conversation with a text. I call this “pont-consciousness.” Pont means bridge in Latin. It is the genesis both of pontiff and pontificate. Used as a verb we make a bridge between disparate texts or things, trusting that the bridge may then be shorn up with the necessary research and attention to the main text. Universities always want you to use the latest research on a topic, just as lawyers site the latest precedents to make a case. If you’re bibliography does not cite anything but old books, old papers or essays, your grade will suffer. This is the myth of “progress” rearing its ugly head. It makes total sense in terms of science and historical research where empirical data builds on incremental discovery and findings, but it is falsely applied to literary theory since, here, the new is not necessarily empirical, but conjectural, and, very often, a creature of fashion rather than of “truth.” To an extent, “truth” is always a slave to the prevailing fashion, and god help you if you study Shakespeare outside the present fashion of gender studies or post-structuralism. All of this “rigor” and insistence on the new is the bias of false scientific positivism. Nothing new in this sense is necessarily “progress,” but rather a recapitulation or new wrinkle in the basic mechanisms underlying fashion and its dynamic, but you must live in this world. You must comply. You must cite the paper written yesterday and ignore the excellent article from 100 years ago. Of course, this system senses its own stupidity, and so it concocts canonical critical to go with the canon of literature.
In recent times theory has become a competing canon, with the theory representing a sort of Jazz fake book upon which the critics blow their changes. Often, these “changes” bear little or no reference to the literary text at hand. Personally, I am not an enemy of this state of affairs. In the hands of a wildly creative critic, we get what amounts to a complimentary music side by side with the cannon. There is much to be said for creative criticism, and we could even make a case that Derrida and other famous literary critics of the last fifty years have composed some of the chief tunes of the age–not novels, not poems, not plays, but their own hybrid of speculative philosophy, of conjectural poetry, with its own rhetoric, style, and characters.
But in this post, I am going to be old fashioned: I am going to apply some of the stuff I gleaned from reading four paragraphs of Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa to a poem for which what Arendt is saying proves fruitful: Blake’s “A Poison Tree.” So first, the poem:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
The genius of Blake is his playing out the location of private and public human activity to show their psychological truth and depth. Arendt says goodness must be hidden in order to remain goodness. Made public, it loses its force. It may remain useful as good works, but it has entered the realm of the public and takes on the diminished life of mere appearance, of “goodly seeming.”
Some of this is a very close cousin to Plato’s archetypes and sense of the pure. In another great poet, we see this played out as “unheard melodies are sweetest / pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” The “pure” is not visible or audible, or known to the senses. Made visible, it loses its essence and becomes substantive. Essence can essential substance, and substance may substantiate essence but always at the cost of the pure realm of each. No man may see the face of God and live because the face of God is degraded by being seen, and man is lifted above his mortal life in its presence. Augustine, versed in Neo-Platonism, takes this further, expanding on Paul’s Romans. God sees only God. Insofar as a man is in a state of grace, God does not see his personality, but his soul which is made in the image and likeness of God. The body conformed to the soul, purified of sin also rises, but must be dead to all fleshly desires. It must fall down on the body of the crucified Christ, and rise up with the risen body of the same. It is, as Paul called it, a “spiritualized body.” God does not see sin because sin is naught–the nothing. When Jesus Christ is covered in sin on the cross, God turns his face from him. Christ becomes sin itself. Though Christ never commits a sinful act, he becomes the scene of sin on which the force of salvation through sacrifice and resurrection are played out (read Issiah 53). In order for God’s face to exist it must be “hidden”–implied only through grace and virtue. It is degraded by entering the realm of public or visible activity.
Arbitrary power may be shown publicly in the world only as ceremony, ritual, seeming justice, and seeming mercy. It must never appear arbitrary or it begins to lose its identity. It must remain visible only through signs of “order.” Blake is saying that wrath made public is the overt action of a covert intimacy. Making his wrath known to his friend, the narrator dissipates its force and ends it in the intimacy of renewed friendship. Hiding his wrath from his foe, the wrath becomes generative. It becomes a god, a force around which and from which all else proceeds. In the public sphere, in the world of appearance, this wrath is a beautiful tree and a great apple. The foe, being truly a foe, seeks to usurp this apple, and to make it his own. Falling for the bait of “goodly seeming,” he is poisoned and dies. In secret, the narrator has cultivated this wrath, watered it with his tears and fears, sunned it with his soft and pleasant wiles. He has hidden it under the terministic screen of “goodness.”
We can apply this to how normative systems subsume the energies of counter-normative systems, and “poison” them with their “goodly seeming.” When a system cannot destroy its counter-statements, it seeks to incorporate them, visibly or not. The counter first wears the blatant uniform of its “difference.” In the gay counterculture we find leather, fetish, send-ups and outlandish parodies of the straight culture. At the same time, those still “in the closet” wore the mask of the straight. When gay culture begins to win normative status and becomes “just folks,” it is depicted in movies as wearing Bill Cosby sweaters, attending the PTA, taking on all the concerns of the “straight culture.” At the same time, formerly gay semiotic indicators enter the realm of the straight.
Beyond the counter-normative and the normative, there is the pre-normative and the post-normative. Instability might be the only constant, but beneath it all lies the power of the arbitrary. This is what counter-cultural movements and all political revolutions risk: by over throwing the seeming “power” that oppresses them, are they merely eating from the poisoned tree of goodly seeming? And in relation to the “first,” the initial power of the arbitrary, can any true change be said to have taken place?
A further point: Arendt insists that the goodness must be hidden not only from the world, but from the one who enacts it. Quoting Christ: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” If wrath is one of the activities that must be hidden in order to truly exist in its fullest, most pure sense, then it is even more potent and alive when it is hidden from the wrathful (passive aggression). Much neutral speech, politeness, and decorum hides tremendous violence. One can say that true wrath always needs a goodly seeming apple to be effective. The terministic screen of a passive-aggressive may be martyrdom and victimage (think of the mother in The Sopranos). “Who me? Mad? Of course I’m not mad. Why should I be mad?” But, in this poem, the narrator is aware that he has harbored a grudge and allowed his wrath to grow. He is deliberate, intentional. He lures his foe. In this case, the wrath remains covert, but not to the one who feels it. His outward appearance, his “soft wiles” draw the foe in. This apple is his “seeming” power, and his foe, being a true foe, seeks to steal it, again under the veil of darkness. The narrator and his foe are one. For true intimacy there must be not union but communion. The friend is “other,” but the foe may be seen as a projection of the self. The self, outside true relationship, splits off, and becomes a false “other” to its own tendencies. Thus a system in order to hide its worst tendencies must project them onto an “other.” This is the intimacy of opposition.
At this point I wonder what is hidden from the narrator but not the poet: the foe is the narrator, and the narrator is the foe. They are split off aspects of each other. They are one in their wrath. No relationship is possible, only union, and union is degraded to the dyslogistic register of murder. The union of substance and essence is the death of both substance and essence. The murdered and the murderer share the scene of the crime. They inhabit the same scene. When the murderer leaves the scene of the crime, he leaves a part of himself there in the defining act of his being. Here is the question: how often do we, in seeking the power denied us, the “goodly seeming” denied us, succeed only in eating from its poisoned tree?
Here’s a few creative things you can try to experiment with these ideas.
1. Write your own version of “A Poison Tree,” of feigning friendship for someone you can’t stand. This can either be creative non-fiction, a story, or a poem.
2. Read up on the psychological concept of passive-aggression and transference. Write a poem, story, or creative non-fiction piece in which these concepts are the overall theme, but are not mentioned overtly.