≡ Menu

tropes

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.

Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:

It is silly.

Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.

Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.

Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.

So how do you kill the gods?

You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:

The Most Deadly Oreo

The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:

Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.

So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:

1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.

2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.

3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.

The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.

This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.

The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.

And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?

No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.