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William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting

William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting

by Terence Diggory

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In Peter Brueghel's painting The Adoration of the Kings, the depiction of Joseph and Mary suggested to William Carlos Williams a paradigm for the relationship between poem and painting, reader and text, man and woman, that he had sought throughout his life to establish: a marriage that can acknowledge and withstand infidelity. Here Terence Diggory explores the meaning


In Peter Brueghel's painting The Adoration of the Kings, the depiction of Joseph and Mary suggested to William Carlos Williams a paradigm for the relationship between poem and painting, reader and text, man and woman, that he had sought throughout his life to establish: a marriage that can acknowledge and withstand infidelity. Here Terence Diggory explores the meaning of this paradigm within the context of Williams's career and also of recent critical and cultural debate, which frequently assumes violence and oppression to be inherent in all forms of relationship. Williams's special attention to the art of painting, Diggory shows, put him in a position to challenge such assumptions. In contrast to the "ethics of reading" deduced by J. Hillis Miller from the premises of deconstruction, Diggory illuminates Williams's "ethics of painting" by applying Julia Kristeva's concepts of psychoanalytic transference and nonoppressive desire. The abstract or "objectless" space in which such desire operates is typified by modernist painting, for both Kristeva and Williams, but foreshadowed in the work of earlier artists such as Bellini and Brueghel.

Editorial Reviews

Fisher-Wirth (English, U. of Mississippi) considers a number of Williams' writings as autobiographical, examining what they reveal about his conception of self and his public and private desires. Explores Williams' use of the paradigm of a marriage that can acknowledge and withstand infidelity, which he derived from a painting by Brueghel, to challenge the assumption that violence and oppression are inherent in all relationships. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting

By Terence Diggory


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06852-7


The Heart of Describing

William Carlos Williams liked to tell a story about Alanson Hartpence, an acquaintance from the early years of Williams's career, when the new French painting had set the entire New York art world astir. In the Daniel Gallery, one of the first New York galleries to feature the new painting, Hartpence was on the verge of concluding an important sale. A collector had almost come to terms with one work Hartpence had showed her, but she called on him for a final clarification. As Williams tells it:

"What is all this down here in this comer?" she said pointing to a part of the picture.

Hartpence leaned over, inspected the area carefully, and after a little consideration stood back and said to the woman: "That, Madam, I should say, is paint."

Similar anecdotes have been told on so many occasions that it now seems a matter of simple reflex to extract their moral: that the work of art is "about" nothing other than itself and must be judged solely on its own terms. The lesson that Williams draws, however, calls for reflection rather than reflex. He opens his lecture "An Approach to the Poem" (1947) with the Hartpence anecdote, in order to persuade his audience to view "the poem as an object, as a thing" (50), but by the end of his lecture, Williams makes clear that that thing is not his ultimate goal:

It is not merely to make a thing called a poem on a piece of paper that the poet is working.

It is to permit feeling to BE by making a vehicle for it. (63)

To permit feeling to be requires that Williams's aesthetic extend beyond the limits of formalism, ultimately into the realm of ethics. Because aesthetics and ethics remain closely intertwined, however, I have chosen to designate Williams's project "the ethics of painting."

Of all the arts, painting best represents Williams's project because of its combination of material and signifying properties. It is more palpably material than literature, and respect for material is a crucial tenet of Williams's aesthetic: paint is paint. On the other hand, compared, for example, with sculpture, the materials of painting are more obviously involved in a signifying process, like that which animates literature. As minimalism demonstrated, an art that seeks to produce mere "things" will move in the direction of sculpture, which has some chance of merely being the material that it is, perhaps because being and three-dimensionality are so intimately connected in our minds. Painting, in contrast, tends to signify its materiality, a point made humorously in Roy Lichtenstein's nonpainterly translations of the abstract expressionist brushstroke (fig. 1). The formula "paint is paint" means also "paint refers to paint."

Williams's story about Alanson Hartpence suggests that his concern with these issues dates back to the second decade of this century, but it is significant that he began telling the story, at least in print, only in the late 1940s. In the years following World War II, the question of aesthetic autonomy, or self-referentiality, along with the still more fundamental issue of linguistic reference itself, was reposed in ethical terms that have continued to fuel critical debate since that time, although the terms themselves have occasionally gone unrecognized amid the heat they have generated. The new prominence assigned to ethics in the titles of recent critical works, which I have deliberately echoed in my allusion to an "ethics of painting," does not signal the emergence of a new concern but rather a new crisis in a concern of long standing. Nor, as is sometimes charged, did that concern develop first abroad and then get imported to America, thereby precipitating crisis by its very foreignness. As the example of Williams would suggest, the roots of the crisis lie deep in native ground. They are as much the discovery of American writers as of French painters, and their implications have found explicit formulation in the critical trends that have arisen on both sides of the Adantic since World War II. In this introductory chapter, it will be useful to survey those trends to provide a context for the more detailed examination of Williams that follows.

The art of abstract expressionism that arose in New York in the years immediately following World War II led the poet Frank O'Hara to reflect on the doctrine that "paint is paint," as Williams had done in response to earlier modernist art. Writing about Jackson Pollock in 1959, shortly after the painter's untimely death, O'Hara observed, "Very few things, it seems, were assimilated or absorbed by Pollock. They were left intact, and given back. Paint is paint, shells and wire are shells and wire, glass is glass, canvas is canvas." This statement refrains from explicitly evaluating Pollock's procedure, but evaluation is implied in the enumeration of the physical materials of Pollock's art, which parallels a preceding list of qualities from the work of other artists that also supplied material for Pollock. In the latter instance, O'Hara approves of Pollock's procedure in ethical terms. Pollock, he writes, "did not appropriate ... what was beautiful, frenzied, ugly or candid in others, but enriched it and flung it back to their work, as if it were a reinterpretation for the benefit of all, a clarification and apotheosis which do not destroy the thing seen, whether of nature or art, but preserve it in a pure regard."

Preservation is the positive value that O'Hara associates with Pollock, but it is not as if the materials that Pollock presents already exist for us in a pure state that the artist merely maintains against contamination. Rather, things exist for us only in our interpretation of them, but Pollock offers a reinterpretation that removes our earlier interpretations and permits us to see things as if for the first time, because we no longer see them as ours. As he admires Pollock's achievement, O'Hara appears to denigrate an activity for which Western artists, at least, have traditionally been commended: the appropriation of one's materials, taking possession of them, exercising mastery over them. Any transformation of the material can be viewed as evidence of such appropriation. O'Hara seems to have the surrealists in mind as a negative example when he says of Pollock, "You do not find, in his work, a typewriter becoming a stomach, a sponge becoming a brain." Such transformation, in O'Hara's view, is an act of violence that threatens to "destroy the thing seen."

Once this train of thought is set in motion, the violence that O'Hara opposes can be discovered in activities that appear much more normal than the surrealist metamorphosis to which he alludes. Inspired by investigations into the symbolism of dreams, surrealist imagery exposes the mechanism of any symbolic process in which one object displaces and comes to stand for another. This is the power of reference that I earlier attributed to painting. The ethical choices with which that power confronts the artist are essentially those that O'Hara outlines in his discussion of Pollock. Is paint to refer to paint, thereby preserving the material in a "pure regard," in O'Hara's phrase, or permitting feeling to be, in Williams's formulation? Or is paint to refer to something other than itself—an apple, a person, a Platonic form—and thereby serve that violence that channels the course of feeling or even represses it altogether?

The artist, Williams advised in "Against the Weather" (1939), "does not translate the sensuality of his materials into symbols but deals with them directly" (SE 197). The spreading of that conviction since World War II has led to an important critique of the symbolist aesthetic, understood not in the narrow sense of the French movement of the turn of the century but in the much broader sense of any art that refers beyond itself. However, as that critique has been extended to the symbolic behavior informing all human activity, the prospects for an escape from the violence associated with symbolism have appeared increasingly bleak, at least to the eyes of the leading proponents of post-structuralism. Pronouncements such as Michel Foucault's, "we must conceive discourse as a violence that we do to things," or Jacques Derrida's, "writing cannot be thought outside of the horizon of intersubjective violence," read like despairing echoes of more hopeful statements by Williams and O'Hara. Whether despairing or not, the post-structuralist attitude informs a methodology that has been applied to the reading of Williams. For instance, at the outset of his study of Williams's "counterpoetics," Joseph Riddel proclaims, "I have intended the violence, rhetorically and functionally, of my analysis" (IB xviii).

In opposition to such an intention, my main objective in this book is to examine the grounds for a critical practice that successfully resists violence, especially as Williams discovered those grounds in the art of painting. Painting convinced Williams that there was an alternative to symbolism that was applicable also to Williams's own art of literature, and the manner in which Williams practiced his conviction was, at least at one time, capable of convincing others who shared his concerns. Perhaps the most important reader of Williams in this regard has been J. Hillis Miller, who explored an alternative to symbolism in his influential study Poets of Reality (1965), which reaches its climax in a chapter on Williams. In the introductory chapter Miller sets forth his premises in familiar terms: "An abstract expressionist painting does not 'mean' anything in the sense of referring beyond itself in any version of traditional symbolism. It is what it is, paint on canvas, just as Williams' wheelbarrow is what it is," that is, words on paper. In his chapter on Williams, to convey a sense of how such poetry generates meaning, Miller again draws an analogy with painting: "Words as things incarnating their meanings become a set of fluid energies whose life exists only in the present. Such words, isolated and cleaned, can be put down on the page like splashes of paint on a canvas and allowed to explode into the multitude of meanings which emerge from their juxtaposition" (PR 304). This is a way of permitting feeling to be, as well as of "letting things be" (PR 306), since, freed of the bond of reference, words and things can exist independently of each other.

A strong undercurrent of ethical concern runs throughout Miller's argument. For instance, he compares the intellectual violence involved in the transformation of objects in symbolist art with the physical violence wrought by modern technology upon the natural environment (PR 4). However, in a move that is typical of much critical discussion since 1965, the structure of Miller's argument subordinates ethical questions to epistemological ones, making the former appear as means to the solution of the latter. By letting things be, fundamentally an ethical position, poets like Williams, according to Miller, were able to resolve the subject-object dualism that was inherent in Romantic or symbolist epistemology. "When man is willing to let things be then they appear in a space which is no longer that of an objective world opposed to the mind," Miller writes. "In this new space the mind is dispersed everywhere in things and forms one with them" (PR 8). Entrance into this new space earns Williams a place among Miller's "poets of reality," "reality" now being understood as lived experience, no longer as a separate world placed in opposition to consciousness.

The new sense of reality thus requires a corresponding renunciation of the privileged status of the agent of consciousness as a separate identity, an ego. Miller understands Williams to have undergone this renunciation at the outset of his career, in a "nameless religious experience" that Williams reported as such long after the event itself occurred, sometime around his twentieth year. Resigning himself to existence, or more precisely, resigning his sense of "private consciousness," as Miller interprets it, Williams received in compensation a sense of being "as much a part of things as trees and stones" (SL 147; cf. PR 287). At one with things, and thus relieved of the need to appropriate them for his special purposes, Williams is free to compose an art of "calm description," Miller's name for Williams's alternative to "the romantic or symbolist aesthetic of transformation" (PR 305).

Although its philosophical outlook ties Poets of Reality most closely to phenomenology, the importance Miller assigns to the simultaneous erasure of the external world and the ego points toward deconstruction, the new movement to which Miller quickly transferred his allegiance. In making that transfer, Miller left behind the analogy between painting and poetry, which, even in Poets of Reality, he had begun to question. Words cannot free themselves entirely of the power of reference, as abstract painting can, Miller assumes (PR 305). Later, in the light of deconstruction, Miller discovers that words, far from being a medium for conveying a poet's sense of his oneness with things, are already divided within themselves. Thus, in "Williams' Spring and All and the Progress of Poetry" (1970), an essay that enlists Williams in the cause of the "deconstruction of metaphysics" (Daedalus 419), Miller emphasizes the self-critical structure of Spring and All (1923), in which sections of prose and verse reflect on each other, though often only obliquely. "This structure of self-interpretation," Miller argues, "is characteristic in one way or another of all literature and of all art," by the very nature of linguistic reference (Daedalus 416). "Every poem has other poems anterior to it to which it refers in one way or another," Miller continues. "It also contains linguistic elements which are self-referential or 'metapoetical.' Some language in the poem is about the poem itself."

In just this way, I have argued, paint is about paint in modem abstract art. I take to be self-referential that practice that Miller, with regard to painting, assumes to be nonreferential, at least in Poets of Reality. Whether he retains that assumption in his essay on Spring and All is not clear; the "structure of self-interpretation" that he discusses there is said to characterize "all art," which would presumably include painting. But it is clear from the same discussion that, whatever arts it includes, the structure that Miller has in mind is defined by "linguistic elements." In the deconstructionist view that Miller is here in the process of adopting, language excludes any perceptual dimension. This exclusion entails a radical revision of the position of Poets of Reality, where, for instance, Miller argues that "reality comes to be present to the senses, present to the mind which possesses it through the senses, and present in the words of the poems which ratify this possession" (PR 11). In Miller's most recent essay on Williams, contained in the volume significantly entitled The Linguistic Moment (1985), Miller concludes that when Williams "at last takes possession of the presence of the present... it is a present ... that is not perceptual but linguistic" (LM 381). Under these conditions, painting might remain relevant to Williams's poetry on the basis of self-referentiality, but it would not be relevant on the basis of materiality, physical sensation, the other dimension that I have claimed to be essential to Williams's "ethics of painting."

Because he took both of these dimensions of painting into consideration as he extracted lessons for poetry, Williams was able, on the one hand, to anticipate much of the post-structuralist critique of symbolism, while, on the other hand, he could conceive an alternative to that violence that post-structuralism regards as inescapable. "Violence is the human and transhuman law," Miller finally concedes in The Linguistic Moment (LM 336), having traversed a considerable distance since he identified Williams with an art of "calm description." In the course of that journey, Miller has advanced our understanding of Wiliams by revealing the element of interpretation that lies at the heart of the kind of description Williams practiced. But Miller has betrayed the ethical motive he earlier attached to description, the "heart" of describing in another sense. I press on that term, in a spirit of play I believe to be in keeping with Williams's attitude toward language, to evoke the "art of describing" as Svetlana Alpers has lately defined it in seventeenth-century Dutch painting (AD). Because Alpers appears to share the goals that originally united Williams and Miller, her example supports my sense of a general critical climate operating on a variety of fronts. But because Alpers is primarily concerned with the art of painting, her example suggests the role that painting might play in formulating the alternative to Miller's conclusions that I believe Williams still offers.


Excerpted from William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting by Terence Diggory. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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