“all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief”

This process of learning to blog has been sneakily turning into a bit of a head-trip for me, the same way writing anything seems to do. Ideas come flashing or bubbling or drifting into my mind in these perfectly natural ways, and I think, perfect, and slip them into the “later, so I do it right” closet, and it’s done.

When I was in my first year I took a Writing class with LJ during which she pointed out that one of the most dangerously boring things to write about is writing. Her approach, she said, was to allot oneself one item for each genre in which one could write about writing. In other words: one poem about writing poetry, one fiction about writing fiction (not sure if this is supposed to break down into sub-items that would include one short story about writing a short story, one novel about writing a novel, etc. Now that I think about it, I think that’s only fair since the two forms are so different, especially when one consider’s Poe’s “unity of effect.”), one creative non-fiction, etc. One haiku? Anyway, I fall into the trap of dangerously boring writing all the time with journalling. Once in a while it is beneficial to the mind and the sense of self to remember that such narcissism really is narcissism (narcissistic writing is narcissistic?). Writing about the evolutions and convolutions of the self needs to expand into more difficult territory to have real impact. Apprehending the self in terms of its perceived ability to tell the truth, and the impossibility of identifying “truth,” especially given the division of self into at least two, probably more, consciousnesses, begins to be interesting. Working out the self that is telling, the self that is either listening or resisting listening, and perhaps the sense of self that seems to govern this back-and-forth process, the inarticulate and unsatisfiable inwardness that knows better but seems to guard knowing.

But that is what the philosophers do, and I still plan to try living long enough to read more Hegel.

Something I have to battle, apparently, is my associative mind, and this is, at the moment, one big concern I have regarding writing. Creatively, the free-associative nature of my thoughts has served me, but academically it doesn’t always. At least not in first drafts. Apart from the fact that it tends to aid a first draft with its generative force. But never with enough time to respond with a revision, and facilitate a tightening up of which associations belong and which are frivolous.

This particular association works for me though, thinking of Poe.

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

-from Edgar Allen Poe, Philosophy of Composition

ceteris paribus: “other things being equal; other conditions corresponding” (OED)

It is interesting that Poe refers to Paradise Lost here. I just finished (if such a thing can ever be said to be true) another look at PL with GF (in English 541, the only seminar I am taking this semester, in which I happen to be the only student). It surely is a long, long poem, and I agree with Poe that it reads like a succession of small poems, and in fact of “poetical excitements.” Witness, for one of my favourite examples, the gorgeous description of the serpent approaching Eve in book IX, and his ensuing seduction of her.

These scenes are made especially poignant by the scene leading to them, when Satan spies Eve doing her work and is so awed by her beauty that he is momentarily abstracted from himself.

Veiled in a cloud of fragrance, where she stood,
Half-spied, so thick the roses bushing round
About her glowed, oft stooping to support
Each flower of tender stalk, whose head, though gay
Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,
Hung drooping unsustained. Them she upstays
Gently with myrtle band, mindless the while
Herself, though fairest unsupported flower,
From her best prop so far, and storm so nigh.
Nearer he drew, and many a walk traversed
Of stateliest covert, cedar, pine, or palm;
Then voluble and bold, now hid, now seen
Among thick-woven arborets, and flowers
Imbordered on each bank, the hand of Eve:
Spot more delicious than those gardens feigned
Or of revived Adonis, or renowned
Alcinoüs, host of old Laertes’ son,
Or that, not mystic, where the sapient king
Held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse.
Much he the place admired, the person more.
As one who, long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,
Forth issuing on a summer’s morn, to breathe
Among the pleasant villages and farms
Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight–
The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine,
Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound–
If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass,
What pleasing seemed for her now pleases more,
She most, and in her look sums all delight:
Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold
This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus early, thus alone. Her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or least action, overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.
That space the Evil One abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge.

This is a moment of almost cinematic tension, suspense, a suspension in time when it is easy to imagine these figures as characters in a narrative instead of archetypal figures fixed in their eternal, extra-human roles–to desperately wish for him to choose differently, for her to look around and see what we see, and for them both not to not go down that path.

But the hot hell that always in him burns,
Though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight,
And tortures him now more, the more he sees
Of pleasure not for him ordained. Then soon
Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites:

“Thoughts, whither have ye led me? with what sweet
Compulsion thus transported to forget
What hither brought us? hate, not love, nor hope
Of Paradise for Hell, here to taste
Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying; other joy
To me is lost. Then let me not let pass
Occasion which now smiles. Behold alone
The Woman, opportune to all attempts–
Her husband, for I view far round, not nigh,
Whose higher intellectual more I shun,
And strength, of courage haughty, and of limb
Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould;
Foe not informidable, exempt from wound–
I not; so much hath Hell debased, and pain
Infeebled me, to what I was in Heaven.
She fair, divinely fair, fit love for Gods,
Not terrible, though terror be in love,
And beauty, not approached by stronger hate,
Hate stronger under show of love well feigned–
The way which to her ruin now I tend.”

So spake the Enemy of Mankind, enclosed
In serpent, inmate bad, and toward Eve
Addressed his way– not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that towered
Fold above fold, a surging maze; his head
Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes;
With burnished neck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant. Pleasing was his shape
And lovely; never since the serpent kind
Lovelier– not those that in Illyria changed
Hermione and Cadmus, or the God
In Epidaurus; nor to which transformed
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline, was seen,
He with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio, the highth of Rome. With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access but feared
To interrupt, sidelong he works his way.
As when a ship, by skilful steersman wrought
Nigh river’s mouth or foreland, where the wind
Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail,
So varied he, and of his tortuous train
Curled many a wanton wreath in sight of Eve,
To lure her eye. She, busied, heard the sound
Of rustling leaves, but minded not, as used
To such disport before her through the field
From every beast, more duteous at her call
Than at Circean call the herd disguised.
He, bolder now, uncalled before her stood,
But as in gaze admiring. Oft he bowed
His turret crest and sleek enamelled neck,
Fawning, and licked the ground whereon she trod.
His gentle dumb expression turned at length
The eye of Eve to mark his play; he, glad
Of her attention gained, with serpent-tongue
Organic, or impulse of vocal air,
His fraudulent temptation thus began:

Perhaps my favourite lines in the poem: “Oft he bowed / His turret crest and sleek enamelled neck, / Fawning, and licked the ground whereon she trod.”

Notably, Paradise Lost on occasion purposely gets read in one sitting–a marathon. The effect of the marathon reading is to impress upon the reader(s) the poem’s rhetorical force: the beauty of the words, the insistent quality of the metrics, and the hugeness of the work altogether as it pretty much overwhelms you when you face it once and for all, nonstop for the twelve or thirteen hours that it takes to read aloud. This one sitting may not be the one sitting Poe imagines, and it’s different too because the privacy of the arrangement of one reader reading one text is formally compromised by reading out loud, and in the company of others (though I think it might have been done alone by someone in the near four hundred years that it’s been around). But the fact that it is one sitting certainly makes Poe’s point because it changes the nature of one’s temporal interaction with the poem, by expressly removing the opportunities for the world and its affairs to interrupt the poem’s totality, and in so doing, by causing a “unity of effect” that otherwise simply would not be perceived or experienced by means of the usual undertaking of reading such a long work, part by part, sitting after sitting, in instalments whose characters inevitably change or fade according to real-world interruptions.

A marathon reading of PL counters Poe’s argument, not by producing whatever effect might come from reading the whole thing in one sitting, but more significantly because it contextualizes the “succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions” by anchoring them in the embodied chronology produced in the act of reading. These ups and downs, as it were, illustrate the dynamic of temporality–time–both in the poem and in the reader’s reading relationship with the poem. In a way, perhaps due in part to the poem as the epic creation story that it is, reading it all in one sitting abstracts one somewhat from the passage of time–just like Satan watching Eve, the reader is outside of time, witnessing significant events–as in a psychedelic experience, and causes the experience of time passing to be more deeply related to a succession of stories and the way the self encounters them. Taking them all together causes them to be tied all together, creating a dynamic within which they are inseparable.

Taking PL in ruminative sections, with an eye to criticism, however, does not necessarily cause different results. Rather, the effect of close reading produces a more developed comprehension of the work that includes an awareness of the effect produced by the marathon reading. Maybe this is irrelevant, because maybe Poe is simply concerned with the entertainment potential of a work, its immediate effect in terms of its consumable value. Regardless, it’s worth pursuing. Stanley Fish, a preeminent Milton scholar, emphasises how the poetics of Paradise Lost enact the seductive power of Satan on the reader, by means of the poem’s rhetorical force. Simply put, the reader is seduced by the poetic language to experience Satan as a sympathetic character, a tragic hero, and effectively to forget that he is in fact the father of lies, and as such exists outside of human experience and cannot even really be comprehended by human imagination or intellect. Further, interspersed throughout the poem in all its forcefulness is Milton’s corrective voice, interrupting the reader’s continuous free fall, and guiding the reader to stop and remember what is going on–that everything is occurring in the fallen world: the reader, the reading, the poem, the events in the poem, the reader’s reaction to them. As such, the reader has the opportunity to struggle within and against his or her fallen–falling–state, to resist seduction, to practice firm faith, thus developing grace and eventually climbing back up out of the hole and returning to God and, ultimately, to the promise of paradise.

It strikes me that with Paradise Lost unity is achieved either way, and the difference lies in the nature of the effect, and how much or how little the reader becomes aware of the experience of the effect: its character, or nature; its implications. Unless the poem is taken in pieces but never completed, the effect–any effect–is to disrupt the reader rather well. Performing scholarship or criticism on the work exemplifies the interruption of the world and its affairs because something cannot be read and worked on at once. Of course, the option I have glaringly left out is reading the poem in pieces without analysing it at all, but I find it a little hard to imagine that Poe’s idea of reading is that shallow. Indeed, to suppose an effect of any kind is to recognise reader response. What would Poe make of Fish? Or of the scholarship to which Fish is responding–one branch identifying Satan as the tragic hero and officiously stating that Milton keeps company with the devil, one claiming Adam, the Son of God, and Michael as the heroes. Fish takes both of the major groups of criticism and works them together to arrive at the notion of the reader’s temptation by the text, and the question of the reader’s response to Milton’s corrective voice.

That is a super reductive and embarrassingly crude summary of Fish, toward whom I basically feel worshipful for his sensitivity to Milton.

Perhaps all of this can influence the process of writing, and especially of getting my thoughts down when I have them, rather than waiting until I think I have the time to do them justice, at which point they are only starved wrecks of their former selves, not leaping into life bloody, harsh, and new, but finally let out of the closet, grim and subdued.

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