Saturday, August 19, 2006

One's eye passes over the page without seeing it

One of the stranger books I own, if not the strangest, is Guide to Kulchur by Ezra Pound. A completely whimsical purchase, I have little insight into why I bought it. I've read none of Pound's poetry, though I'm aware that for some it's of paramount importance (as poetry), and that he is a huge figure in the history and development of Modernism. I know this as a fact, so to speak, not as something I can identify myself. In any event, I have the book, and I dip into it every now and again, when I'm unable to focus on anything else, when I want something brief to read (it's organized into very short chapters), etc. It was originally published in 1938, not exactly the most heartwarming period of Pound's life. It's peppered with bizarre spellings, constructions, abbreviations (he often uses "wd." and "cd." for "would" and "could", for example), neologisms...

One of the few things I knew about Pound before I bought the book (other things: editor of The Waste Land, important Modernist figure, American ex-patriot, purveyor of anti-semitic-rantings during WWII, winner of controversial award for Pisan Cantos) was that he had translated a lot of Chinese literature, particularly the works of Confucius, into English. In the Guide he reproduces some of the Analects themselves. For example, in the very first section of the book he presents and comments on Analects XI (under the heading "Kung on the Make Work Fallacy"):
The inhabitants of Lou wished to put up a new public granary. Min-tseu-kian said: Isn't the old one still good enough?

Is there any need of a new one which will cost much sweat to the people?

Said Kung the Philosopher: If that man opens his mouth, he speaks to some purpose.

COMMENT: The old granary was still suited to its purpose. Kung is against superfluous labour that does not serve a purpose.

Said Szetsun, or rather so says his translator: "The sayings of the great sages are ordinary." This I take to mean that there is nothing superfluous or excessive in them. When one knows enough one can find wisdom in the Four Classics. When one does not know enough one's eye passes over the page without seeing it.
When I first read this passage I was struck, because this gets at one of my common themes, the anxiety of allusion. As previously mentioned, I often fear that I'm missing something essential, some allusion that will open up meaning for me. No doubt I'm not being fair to myself, but literature builds on the history of literature, and noticing, say, a classic trope is not unimportant. Also, this passage in some sense brings Walter Benjamin to mind. There is much that is mysterious in Benjamin's writing, much that needs to be re-read to be comprehended. But then there are the passages that seem obvious. Actually, one thing that I notice about writing about my reading, about reading blogs, say, about others' reading experiences, is how important it is to note the seemingly obvious or trivial. It is easy to "pass over" those passages, the simple ones, or to pass over (i.e., not record, not attend to, not blog about) my own observations, when they seem of relatively little consequence, when writing about those very things can lead one to other less obvious ideas, to writing of perhaps more consequence or meaning.

Toward the end of Pound's book, page 352 in the New Directions edition that I have, to be precise, is this list, under the heading "As Sextant":
I. The FOUR BOOKS (Confucius and Mencius).

II. HOMER: Odyssey: intelligence set above brute force.

III. The GREEK TRAGEDIANS: rise of sense of civic responsibility.

IV. DIVINA COMMEDIA: life of the spirit.

V. FROBENIUS: Erlebte Erdteile: without which a man cannot place any book or work of art in relation to the rest.

VI. BROOKS ADAMS: Law of Civilization and Decay: most recent summary of 'where in a manner of speaking' we had got to half a century ago. Second half of Beard's introduction indicates the essential omission from Adams' thought.

VII. The English Charters, the essential parts of BLACKSTONE, that is those dealing with history and philosophy of law. The American Constitution.

As the Four Books contain answers to all problems of conduct that can arise, a man who really understands them may regard the other six components of this list as amenities rather than necessities.

This is, naturally, not a full list of books a sane man will want to enjoy. These are books without which he cannot measure the force of the others.
Naturally, I've read very little of this. Only the Odyssey, stray portions of Greek tragedies here and there, the American Constitution. That last sentence, "these are books without which he cannot measure the force of the others", doesn't do much to alleviate my anxiety. I'm reminded of this interview with Gilbert Sorrentino (who, if I'm not mistaken, was an admirer of Pound's poetry), where the interviewer asks about Mulligan Stew (Note that this quotation points to my reasons for having delayed my reading of Mulligan Stew as long as did.):
Mulligan Stew is a parody of several literary cultures. Can this process have any meaning for readers who don't understand what's going on before their eyes? Can this sort of book still be written today?

GS: A parody only works if the reader or viewer is aware of the model that is being parodied. Sure, a book like this can be written today, but since there seem to be fewer readers, there will be fewer people who get the parody. Literature feeds on itself and people have to learn to read if they want to be readers. You can only learn to read by reading, but you can read only if you've learn how.
I suppose my reading project can be described as a sort of lurching, late-started attempt to "learn how".


Scraps said...

Oh boy, do you speak for me. My reading education is severely lacking, and I am constantly assailed by the feeling -- especially when reading highly allusive poets -- that I am missing things so essential that my reading experience bears little resemblance to what the author intends. I have tried remedial self-education, to some extent, but even there I have the feeling that doing this by myself is inadequate.

By the way, your "Mulligan Stew" post is showing up as new in the RSS feed -- at least, when I read it in Livejournal -- but your most recent post on the supposed terror plot is not.

Richard said...

Yeah. I suppose there's something to be said for our own reading experiences, even when uninformed, so to speak. Our "misreadings" (I've been seeing that word bandied about a lot as key) inform our future readings and misreadings, which perhaps correct previous misreadings, or not. It's a process. But I always feel behind--I guess there's no getting ahead of the game, but still.

As for the RSS feed, I made some minor changes to the Mulligan Stew post, in the spacing between some of the quoted passages, nothing worth re-reading. I just never liked how I'd left it all rammed together like it was. Don't know why the more recent post isn't showing as new (did it ever show as new?).