Friday, March 07, 2008

Past Modern: Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, and Beckett

(reflection on Samuel Beckett occasioned by some of his poems newly translated from French by Philip Nikolayev in POETRY, Feb. 2008, along with an art exhibit about Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, and their company)

Ah, the good old modern days! Remember them? From this distance, some of those brash, new revolutionary artists look like pathetic attention-seekers, on a par with Madonna. Still, the best of them have something to show us even now.

First, the pathetic: Atlanta's High Museum of Art has an exhibition of photos, drawings, and paintings by Alfred Stieglitz and the women that he promoted under the banner of "modernism" in the early decades of the 20th century. The draw for the exhibit is the eventual Mrs. Stieglitz, a.k.a. Georgia O'Keeffe. I'm sure the exhibitors didn't intend for us to see these women artists as the harem of a man who was nothing more than a mediocre artist and a prurient promoter. Yet, the photos of the women show them in posing, and being posers. Again and again, we're told that this or that woman fulfilled Stieglitz's notion of a woman's "innocent" and "childlike" vision. He flitted from one to the other, until he got a star in O'Keeffe, so they didn't fill full at all. What business does Alfred Stieglitz have telling us what a woman's vision is? How condescending to equate "woman" with "child." With all the nude models who drape themselves across unlikely prop pieces, their heads back, their faces averted -- it all seems like "childlike" and "innocent" are code words for "erotic" and "submissive" in the way that "wild" and "untamed" telegraphed "sex" in the ads for movies and books that puzzled me in my childhood in the Sixties. O'Keeffe always pretended to be shocked that her big fat close-ups of flower's reproductive parts were said to be erotic, but, by the time we reach those at the end of this depressing exhibit, what else can we conclude? She was the best of the bunch at doing what they all did, and I still like her early pictures of city skylines and her late pictures of American desert, but this exhibit, which intended to set her off as the jewel of the collection, only diminishes her.

One bit of commentary at start of the High's permanent collection of early twentieth century works was a helpful reminder to me, however. We are admonished to remember "modernism" as an attitude, not a style. Since art of the immediate past had told stories, and had romanticized nature, and often had didactic intentions, the modernists focused on the purely personal, and on urban life, and generally on mocking prevalent values as "bourgeois."

In literature, this attitude informed the works of James Joyce and of his disciple Samuel Beckett, and we're all richer for that. Right now, I'm stuck once again around chapter seven of ULYSSES, having reached the point of diminishing returns where my inability to figure out just what's going on in each sentence is weighing me down more than my appreciation of Joyce's choice to write an episode at a newspaper office entirely in the form of little newspaper articles. But my affection for ULYSSES is growing with each new slog through the book, nourished by the fun and distinct feel of the early chapters, with nothing more appealing than the very first page.

Now, reading newly translated poems by Samuel Beckett in February's issue of POETRY, I'm looking in vain for the Beckett I learned to appreciate from his stage works.

In the late Seventies, at a time when I was calling myself an evangelical fundamentalist, Beckett helped me out of that limited perspective by showing me how truth and joy could be expressed by a man in the very act of describing a world where there is no God. I read his novel MURPHY, and enjoyed its word play. But it was seeing a double bill of KRAPP'S LAST TAPE and ENDGAME that won me over. It was a production at London's Old Vic theatre in 1980, performed by (former?) inmates of San Quentin prison, directed by the author. I'll not forget how dim light came up on the old man "Krapp," seated at a desk, his head in his hand -- and how nothing happened for an uncomfortably long period of time, until the actor suddenly sighed, causing the audience to jump and even squeal in surprise. What a great way to adjust our expectations! This stretched the old ideas of what a play should be -- the man acts alone, but he's in a dialogue of sorts with his own past selves, represented by tape recordings.

These poems by Beckett, upon several re-readings, don't give so much. The commentary by translator Philip Nikolayev tells us that these are each responses to very personal events, full of cryptic references to things and people Beckett knew. In short,"you had to be there" to "get" them. Poetry had been a popular form for the unified expression of common ideas and values, and for the sharing of personal experiences and insights. So one prominent modernist T. S. Eliot went another way, trying to objectify his poetry and to make his readers piece together for themselves the fragments of others' experiences -- minus the unifying voice of the poet. Beckett, here, is trying to do less than that.

Still, there's fun in a disorienting little poem on a littler subject, "La Mouche" ("The Housefly"), amusing in playing with perspective. Here's the first half of it:
between the scene and me
the glass
empty except for it

belly down
tieid tight in its black guts
panicked antennas linked wings
And, as always, there's word play, as in a morose poem translated as "all right all right there's a land," which contains this line: "my loneliness I know it oh well I know it badly," and ends with "the calm the love the hate the calm the calm." Beckett often juxtaposes opposites for the effect of jarring us into some kind of truth. In this poem, it's just to call attention to the incongruity of the phrase "I know it well" when the poet means to express the tedium of loneliness. The last words of WAITING FOR GODOT are something like, "Yes, let's go," juxtaposed with the last image of the two waiters sitting still, still waiting. I think often of another juxtaposition in the last words of his last novel THE UNNAMABLE, "I can't go on. I'll go on." That encapsulates much of life, especially for people who live in poverty of means or health.

While I'm dwelling on the February 2008 issue of POETRY, I'd like to point out a "portfolio" of poems by George Szirtes from a larger collection called "In the Face of History." These are short poems printed alongside historical photos that inspired them. For example, a photo of Jewish boys in the Ghetto playing at being goose-stepping soldiers draws a poetic response from Szirtes that doesn't do much more than describe what we see -- but the combination draws attention to something marvelous and horrifying that deserves our attention. The final picture in the collection shows a little naked girl on a barren hill flanked by Soviet-era public housing with commentary that wraps up the period of Soviet domination and Marxist theory with this laconic and neatly rhymed musing:
All that you see is the all-but-naked child
on the all-but-naked hill against a naked sky
as if what you could not see were the question
and she the reply.

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