Monday, February 6, 2017

The Quidditas of Esthetics

In James Joyce's "Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man", the eponymous protagonist Stephen Dedalus gives his explanation of the basics of esthetics (spelled without an initial 'a') to Lynch, while they are out walking. The dissertation is interrupted by trivial remarks, relevant to the tale, but not to the thesis; I have therefore slightly edited the text, presenting here only the thesis. Every would-be reader writer, critic and artist should make a point of reading it:

— To finish what I was saying about beauty... the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: Ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension?..

    Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher's boy had slung inverted on his head.

— Look at that basket — he said.

— I see it — said Lynch.

— In order to see that basket — said Stephen — your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehended it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas, —

— Bull's eye ! — said Lynch, laughing — Go on. —

— Then — said Stephen — you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia. —

— Bull's eye again! — said Lynch wittily. — Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar. —

— The connotation of the word — Stephen said — is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter was but the shadow, the reality of which it was but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas was the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley's, called the enchantment of the heart. —

    Stephen paused and, though his companion did not speak, felt that his words had called up around them a thought enchanted silence.

— What I have said — he began again — refers to beauty in the wider sense of the word, in the sense which the word has in the literary tradition. In the market place it has another sense. When we speak of beauty in the second sense of the term our judgment is influenced in the first place by the art itself and by the form of that art. The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. If you bear this in memory you will see that art necessarily divides itself into three forms progressing from one to the next. These forms are: the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others. —

— That you told me a few nights ago —said Lynch — and we began the famous discussion. —

— I have a book at home — said Stephen — in which I have written down questions which are more amusing than yours were. In finding the answers to them I found the theory of the esthetic which I am trying to explain. Here are some questions I set myself: Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the lust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? If not, why not? —

— Why not, indeed ? — said Lynch, laughing.

— If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood — Stephen continued — make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not? —

— That's a lovely one — said Lynch, laughing again. — That has the true scholastic stink. —

— Lessing — said Stephen — should not have taken a group of statues to write of. The art, being inferior, does not present the forms I spoke of distinguished clearly one from another. Even in literature, the highest and most spiritual art, the forms are often confused. The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero, which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. —

— Trying to refine them also out of existence — said Lynch.

A fine rain began to fall from the high veiled sky and they turned into the duke’s lawn, to reach the national library before the shower came.

— What do you mean — Lynch asked surlily — by prating about beauty and the imagination in this miserable God forsaken island ? No wonder the artist retired within or behind his handiwork after having perpetrated this country. —

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Footnotes to the Book of the Setback

The dream of a totally liberated Falastina
Nizar Qabbani 

The setback in question (al-naksa in the Arabic) was the aspiration of the Arab world to remove that wart known as Israel from its otherwise cosmetically perfect face. It took place between June 6th and June 11th 1967, and is called the Six Day War in the West, the Huzairan or June war in the Arab world, or more generally al-nakba, the Catastrophe.

Until that time Nizar Qabbani had been an interestingly dull, very minor and very traditional poet, the author of erotic serenades to multiple women, and of elegant minor odes in the conventional themes of poetry. The disaster of 1967 changed everything, and the lyricist turned into a pamphleteer of Iltizām - commitment - overnight, blaming and criticising every Arab Sheikh and government and imam, from Kabul to Casablanca. The "Footnotes" were published in the August 1967 edition of Al-Adab, the most important poetry magazine in Beirut, which was then still the cultural centre of the modern Arab world.

So powerful was the impact of the poem, in a world which continues to prize public poetry much as we in the West prize ballroom dancing by celebrities or the results of television baking competitions, that the leaders of every Arab state immediately banned it, which of course is an act of stupidity that governments with access to history books should surely have learned by now. To ban a poem is to give it heightened status, so that everyone now must have a copy, learned by heart if necessary, when actual texts are too dangerous to pass around. To ban a poem is to invite the creation of a poetical movement, because now others are awakened to the rallying-cry, others wish to show support, and even Iltizām; others feel emboldened to add their voices to the protest against the corrupt and incompetent leaders, especially of the Palestinians, the worst-served people in the modern world as far as leadership is concerned.

So the Al-Adab Al-Huzairany was born, "The June Literature", a remarkably lilac-coloured blossoming of angry political writing, in the manner of Brecht and Neruda and Dylan. Ironically, several of the best of that group of poets, which includes the Druze Samih al-Qasim, the expelled Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, and the "locked out" Palestinian Rashid Hussein, do not live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, nor in the Palestinian Diaspora which is now as global as the Jewish one which caused it, but in Israel itself, where their anger is conjoined with that of many equally embittered Israeli poets, and both sides simply want to create one shared homeland between both people.

For many years, before the Internet came along, finding a copy of the "Footnotes" was not easy, so that I knew about the existence of the poem, had even heard it recited in Arabic, which I do not speak, but had not managed to find anyone who could render it in English. Then, for many years, I simply forgot about it, until I chanced upon "Modern Poetry of the Arab World", translated and edited by Abdullah al-Udhari (Penguin Books, 1986) at Harrow's Gayton Library; but unfortunately, when I opened the book, pages 87-114 had been hacked out with a pair of scissors, and the "Footnotes" were among them. This sent me back to the Internet, where I was able to find al-Udhari’s translation, which is the version reprinted below. I would like to include a copy of the original in Arabic, but sadly I have been unable to locate one, either in print or on the Internet; I promise to update this blog as soon as someone who can find it sends me the text, or even just a link to a text.

Qabbani, for the information, was born in Damascus in 1923, and died in London in 1998. Like Neruda, when not being a poet, he earned his living as a diplomat.


Footnotes to the Book of the Setback


The old word is dead.
The old books are dead.
Our speech with holes like worn-out shoes is dead.
Dead is the mind that led to defeat.


Our poetry has gone sour.
Women’s hair, nights, curtains and sofas
Have gone sour. Everything has gone sour.


My grieved country, In a flash
You changed me from a poet who wrote love poems
To a poet who writes with a knife.


What we feel is beyond words:
We should be ashamed of our poems.


Stirred by Oriental bombast,
By boastful swaggering that never killed a fly,
By the fiddle and the drum,
We went to war
And lost.


Our shouting is louder than our actions,
Our swords are taller than us,
This is our tragedy.


In short
We wear the cape of civilisation
But our souls live in the stone age.


You don’t win a war
With a reed and a flute.


Our impatience
Cost us fifty thousand new tents.


Don’t curse heaven
If it abandons you,
Don’t curse circumstances.
God gives victory to whom He wishes.
God is not a blacksmith to beat swords.


It’s painful to listen to the news in the morning.
It’s painful to listen to the barking of dogs.


Our enemies did not cross the border
They crept through our weakness like ants.


Five thousand years
Growing beards
In our caves.
Our currency is unknown,
Our eyes are a haven for flies.
Smash the doors,
Wash your brains,
Wash your clothes.
Read a book,
Write a book,
Grow words, pomegranates and grapes,
Sail to the country of fog and snow.
Nobody knows you exist in caves.
People take you for a breed of mongrels.


We are thick-skinned people
With empty souls.
We spend our days practising witchcraft,
Playing chess and sleeping.
And we the ‘Nation by which God blessed mankind’?


Our desert oil could have become
Daggers of flame and fire.
We’re a disgrace to our noble ancestors:
We let our oil flow through the toes of whores.


We run wildly through streets
Dragging people with ropes,
Smashing windows and locks.
We praise like frogs,
Swear like frogs,
Turn midgets into heroes,
And heroes into scum:
We never stop and think.
In mosques
We crouch idly,
Write poems,
And beg God for victory
Over our enemy.


If I knew I’d come to no harm,
And could see the Sultan,
I’d tell him:
Your wild dogs have torn my clothes
Your spies hound me
Their eyes hound me
Their noses hound me
Their feet hound me
They hound me like Fate
Interrogate my wife
And take down the names of my friends,
When I came close to your walls
And talked about my pains,
Your soldiers beat me with their boots,
Forced me to eat my shoes.
You lost two wars.
Half of our people are without tongues,
What’s the use of people without tongues?
Half of our people
Are trapped like ants and rats
Between walls’.
If I knew I’d come to no harm
I’d tell him:
‘You lost two wars
You lost touch with children’


If we hadn’t buried our unity
If we hadn’t ripped its young body with bayonets
If it had stayed in our eyes
The dogs wouldn’t have savaged our flesh.


We want an angry generation
To plough the sky
To blow up history
To blow up our thoughts.
We want a new generation
That does not forgive mistakes
That does not bend.
We want a generation of giants.


Arab children,
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Arab children,
Don’t read about our windowless generation,
We are a hopeless case.
We are as worthless as watermelon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Arab children,
Spring rain,
Corn ears of the future,
You are a generation
That will overcome defeat.

I could very easily write a critical appraisal of this poem, its techniques, its lexicon, its tone, the ironies of the address to the Sultan by a poet who is also an appointed diplomat. But I don't think that literary criticism is what this poem is crying out for.

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