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Sir Frank Kermode has been writing peerless literary criticism for more than a half-century. Pieces of My Mind includes his own choice of his major essays since 1958, beginning with his extraordinary study of "Poet and Dancer Before Diaghilev" and ending with a marvelous consideration of Shakespeare's Othello and Verdi-Boito's Otello. Important essays on Hawthorne, on Wallace Stevens, on problems in literary theory and analysis, on Auden, on "Secrets and Narrative Sequence," and three previously unpublished essays (including one on "Memory" and one on "Forgetting") fill out this rich and rewarding volume. Pieces of My Mind also contains recent considerations of the work of major modern writers--Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, Tom Paulin, and others.
Of Kermode's last book, Shakespeare's Language, Richard Howard wrote that it was "a triumph of inauguration and the crowning action of his splendid career of criticism. It is, and will doubtless remain, the first book one should read about Shakespeare's plays, and with those plays." Pieces of My Mind has equal authority and power, and it will be equally praised.
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Pieces of My Mind
Essays And Criticism 1958-2002
By Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2003 Frank Kermode
All rights reserved.
Poet and Dancer Before Diaghilev
In the summer of 1955 I wrote a short book called Romantic Image, published in 1957, inspired largely by love of W. B. Yeats. Yeats was keen on dancers, and the book has a chapter called 'The Dancer', which is partly about the excited response of some fin de siècle poets – English and French, and notably, Mallarmé – to dancers, actual, historical and mythical. The object of their admiration might be Salome, the most fascinating of them all, but they could also worship the music-hall dancers of the moment, lavishly courted by poets and reviewers both as performers and as exotically strange women. Dowson and Symons, friends of Yeats, haunted the stage doors. The mysteriously neurotic Jane Avril, familiar from the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, was one famous name, and there were a good many others, not least among them Loïe Fuller, in whom Yeats seems to have had a particular interest.
The cult of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, of Fokine and Nijinsky and the composers and painters who became famous in that context, is a familiar theme, but this somewhat earlier cult of the dance and dancers had been half forgotten by the time this essay was written. My book said something about Fuller, and was adorned by a striking image of her, the work of Thomas Theodor Heine. Then I resolved to find out more about her, making the leisurely library visits I mention below. In the end it was by pure accident I got most of the information I was looking for, and the essay eventually appeared in Partisan Review, with some striking photographs in the American journal Theatre Arts, and later in a collection called Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962). When I returned the extremely useful material he had lent me I sent a copy of the article to Mr Nicol, who did not acknowledge it. I had used it,along with documents I found in the files of French periodicals and in the great collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to say something of the dancer's contemporary reputation, and of how she achieved her remarkable theatrical effects. But I'm afraid that Mr Nicol, who had himself, as a very young person, been a member of a Fuller troupe (she had given up solo dancing in favour of ensemble work) may have wanted a biography, which it had never been in my mind to produce.
It is now much too late to apologize for this misunderstanding. Whether by my efforts or those of other fans, the celebrity of Fuller was in part restored for a time, though it never quite matched the fame of her rival Isadora Duncan, in most respects inferior as an artist but having a livelier biography. Duncan was celebrated in a successful movie, Fuller had to be content with the gorgeous tributes of Mallarmé. For a year or two Jonathan Miller and I gave some quite serious thought to the prospect of mounting an exhibition, but when there was one it was not of our making, and was shown in California and in Paris, but not in London. A pity, and the fame of Fuller is in consequence a little dimmer than it might have been. Anyway, I think of my essay not only as an appendix to Romantic Image but as retaining some interest as a first attempt to revive interest in a remarkable dancer.
Diaghilev figures in the title simply as a terminus; he arrived in Paris in 1909, and everybody knows what happened. 'Le rêve de Mallarmé se réalise', said Ghéon. What dream of Mallarmé? That which found a true theatrical sonority, a stage liberated from cardboard falsities; which emerged from a confluence of the other arts and yet remained, as Wagner did not, theatre. The Ballets Russes demonstrated the correspondence of the arts so wonderfully that in comparison Wagner's effort was, said Camille Mauclair, 'une gaucherie barbare'. Diaghilev arrived, not a moment too soon, in response to prayers from both sides of the Channel. One could trace the developments in taste which prepared his reception – not only in the limited sphere of the dance, but in writings on actors (the cult of Duse, for example), in the fashionable admiration for oriental art and theatre, in avant-garde agitation for theatrical reform. In March 1908, The Mask, a quarterly dedicated to this end and strongly under the influence of Gordon Craig, prayed in its opening editorial for a religion that did not 'rest upon knowledge nor rely upon the Word' but rather brought together 'Music, Architecture, and Movement' to heal 'the Evil ... which has separated these three Arts and which leaves the world without a belief'. The editor can hardly have expected his prayers to be answered so soon – not precisely by the theatrical reforms he had in mind, but by the Russian dancers, prophets of that Concord and Renaissance he so earnestly requested. Havelock Ellis, with his usual wide view, put the situation thus in The Dance of Life (1923): 'If it is significant that Descartes appeared a few years after the death of Malherbe, it is equally significant that Einstein was immediately preceded by the Russian Ballet.'
Ellis makes Diaghilev a John the Baptist of a 'classico-mathematical Renaissance', and the notion that this was a renaissance of some kind or other was evidently in the air. However, such credit as is due to its heralds should not all be awarded to the Russian ballet. There was, obviously, Isadora Duncan; but Isadora doesn't take us to the root of the matter. Where, for my purposes, that lies, I can perhaps suggest in this way: what Camille Mauclair said of Diaghilev was somewhat disloyally said, for he had used almost the same words years before of the American dancer Loïe Fuller. Art, he declared, was one homogeneous essence lying at the root of the diversified arts, not a fusion of them; and Loie Fuller was it, 'a spectacle ... which defies all definition ... Art, nameless, radiant ... a homogeneous and complete place ... indefinable, absolute ... a fire above all dogmas'. The language is Mallarméan; as we shall see, it was all but impossible to write of Loïe Fuller otherwise unless you were very naive. Still, not even Mallarmé could start a renaissance single-handed, and there has to be a word or two here about whatever it was that predisposed everybody to get excited in this particular way about dancers.
The peculiar prestige of dancing over the past seventy or eighty years has, I think, much to do with the notion that it somehow represents art in an undissociated and unspecialized form – a notion made explicit by Yeats and hinted at by Valéry. The notion is essentially primitivist; it depends upon the assumption that mind and body, form and matter, image and discourse have undergone a process of dissociation, whichit is the business of art momentarily to mend. Consequently dancing is credited with a sacred priority over the other arts, as by Havelock Ellis (whose essay is valuable as a summary of the theoretical development I am now discussing) and, with less rhapsody and more philosophy, by Mrs Langer in the twelfth chapter of Feeling and Form and (more flatly) in the opening essay of Problems of Art. In view of this primitivizing, it is worth remembering that the increase of prestige was contemporaneous with a major effort by anthropologists, liturgiologists, and folklorists to discover the roots of the dance in ritual of all kinds, and also with the development of a certain medical interest in dancing. We are all familiar with the interest shown by the generation of Valéry and that of Eliot in these matters; and from Eliot, at the time when he was busy with Jane Harrison and Frazer, we can get some notion of how they struck the literary imagination. Here, for instance, is a passage from an uncollected Criterion review of two books on dancing:
Anyone who would contribute to our imagination of what the ballet may perform in future ... should begin by a close study of dancing among primitive peoples ... He should also have studied the evolution of Christian and other liturgy. For is not the High Mass — as performed, for instance, at the Madeleine in Paris — one of the highest developments of dancing? And finally, he should track down the secrets of rhythm in the still undeveloped science of neurology.
Mr Eliot found the Noh plays exciting and praised Massine for providing in the ignorant modern theatre that rhythm regarded as essential by Aristotle. But the peculiar modern view could hardly have been developed before dancing became an accredited fine art; and the date for this seems to be 1746, when Batteux included it among the five with music, poetry, painting and sculpture. The general and developing Romantic tendency was to give music pre-eminence as being non-discursive, 'autonomous' as the word now is, referring to nothing outside itself for meaning; poems would be like that if there were not a basic flaw in their medium, the habit that words have of meaning something in ordinary usage. But some of this prestige was undoubtedly captured by dancing; it is more 'natural' and more 'primitive' than music, more obviously expressive of what Mrs Langer calls 'patterns of sentience' and 'the mythic consciousness'. I use this late terminology because it is careful enough to avoid certain radical confusions. The dance, though expressive, is impersonal, like a Symbolist poem that comes off. Miss Deirdre Pridden finds the proper word to be Ortega y Gasset's 'dehumanization'; the dancer 'vide la danse, autant que faire se peut, de son humaine matière'. Something might here be said about organicist theories of expressiveness in Modern Dance, opposed not only to conventional ballet (as Fuller and Duncan and Yeats were) but sometimes even to the use of music, as irrelevant to the Gestalt of the dance; the source of these theories is Delsarte, but they have been much refined. However, there is no disagreement from the fundamental principle that dance is the most primitive, non-discursive art, offering a pre-scientific image of life, an intuitive truth. Thus it is the emblem of the Romantic image. Dance belongs to a period before the self and the world were divided, and so achieves naturally that 'original unity' which, according to Barfield for instance, modern poetry can produce only by a great and exhausting effort of fusion.
The Nineties poets wrote endlessly about dancers, welcomed foreign troupes and prepared the way for the serious impact of the Japanese Noh in the next decade. But they also enjoyed the dancers themselves, and regularly fell in love with them. Symons and his friends would meet the Alhambra girls after the show and take them along to the Crown for drink and serious talk; serious not because of what Symons called the 'learned fury' of these 'mænads of the decadence', but in a humbler way. This was the epoch of the Church and Stage Guild, Stewart Headlam's club for clergy and actors. Headlam believed 'in the Mass, the Ballet, and the Single Tax' and such was his balletolatry that he wrote a book on ballet technique. But he also believed that the liturgy must not continue to be deprived of dancing, and so laboured to make the stage respectable, that the stigma on dancing might be removed. Among the membership girls from the Empire and the Alhambra preponderated. Headlam was not original in his liturgical views, which may have gained currency from Anglo-Catholic propaganda for ceremonies not explicitly forbidden; however, he gives one a pretty good idea of what must have been a common enough belief in this passage from an article he contributed to his own Church Reformer (October, 1884) in a series on the Catechism:
... to take an illustration from the art of dancing, which perhaps more than all other arts is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained by the Word of God Himself, as a means whereby we receive the same and a pledge to assure us thereof; and which has suffered even more than the other arts from the utter antisacramentalism of British philistia. Your Manichean Protestant, and your superfine rationalist, reject the Dance as worldly, frivolous, sensual, and so forth; and your dull, stupid Sensualist sees legs, and grunts with some satisfaction: but your Sacramentalist knows something worth more than both of these. He knows what perhaps the dancer herself may be partially unconscious of, that we live now by faith and not by sight, and that the poetry of dance is the expression of unseen spiritual grace. 'She all her being flings into the dance.' 'None dare interpret all her limbs express.' These are the words of a genuine Sacramentalist ...
The poet is T. Gordon Hake. Headlam knew Symons well, and also Yeats and many other Nineties poets and painters. He seems, in his Guild and in writing of this kind, to reflect rather accurately the liturgical, poetic, and music-hall aspects of this renaissance of dancing. The liturgical ingredient developed luxuriously in the border country of Anglo-Catholicism; witness R. H. Benson's essay 'On the Dance as a Religious Exercise', an account of the Mass as a dramatic dance:
The Catholic ... is not ashamed to take his place with the worshippers of Isis and Cybele, with King David, and with the naked Fijean, and to dance with all his might before the Lord.
The antiquarian interest culminated in G. R. S. Mead's The Sacred Dance of Jesus (published in The Quest in 1910, but long excogitated). This was Havelock Ellis's chief source, and it is a work of great and curious learning, written in a long tradition of attempts to explain Matthew 11:17, 'We have piped unto you and ye have not danced'. Mead was most interested in the second-century Hymn of Jesus, but he deals with the Fathers and with medieval church dancing, with the liturgies of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, and so forth. I doubt if Mead is taken very seriously by modern historians – he isn't cited in the large bibliography of Backman's Religious Dances (1952) - but for a while he mattered a lot. Yeats, for example, went to hislectures. He was by no means the only zealous dance-historian of the time. Toulouse- Lautrec, who was not interested in these matters, had an English savant thrown out of a dance- hall for plaguing him about antiquity; this could have been Mead, but not necessarily. At a time when it was relatively easy for a dancer to acquire a reputation for learning, Loïe Fuller was said on high authority (Anatole France) to be wise in the history of dancing; she took as her prototype Miriam, who, according to Philo, as quoted by Mead, symbolizes perfect sense, as Moses symbolizes perfect mind.
The presence of the savant in the bal tells us something about the seriousness with which music-hall dancing was taken on both sides of the Channel. From Symons and Goncourt one knows that it was so; and of course this was a period of close relations between London and Paris. Yvette Guilbert often appeared in London, Marie Lloyd and others in Paris; it was fashionable to treat them as very great artists. This cult of the music-hall has been persistent; there is a classic statement of it in Mr Eliot's essay on Marie Lloyd (1932), and it still goes on in a London which has only one or two feebly surviving halls, constantly threatened with demolition. Nothing distresses some English intellectuals more than the closing of a music-hall. This attitude is a weakly descendant of a positive avant-garde reaction against commercial theatre in the Nineties; failing dance-drama or übermarionettes, there were still Marie Lloyd and Little Tich, defying cultural and social division, freely satirical, speaking with the voice of the belly. You could talk of Yvette Guilbert, who, according to André Raffalovitch, sang 'the sufferings of those the world calls vile', in the same breath as the Duse.
The Parisian music-halls were certainly not short of a similar intellectual réclame, and had their place, as part of the metropolitan experience, with all the other pleasures devised for an elite that took its pleasures seriously – fine clothes, Japanese prints, neurasthenia. They are as important in the early history of modern art as folk-music and primitive painting, with which indeed they are obviously associated. Our received idea of this world owes more to Toulouse-Lautrec than anybody else, and there is no reason to think it very inaccurate. The circus, the vaudeville, the bal, were serious pleasures; the primitive, the ugly, the exotic were in demand. The brutal patter of Aristide Bruant, La Goulue coarsely cheeking the Prince of Wales, the emaciated and psychopathic May Belfort, the cherished ugliness of Mme Abdala; all are characteristic. The mood is that of the violent Lautrec drawings of Guilbert and Jane Avril, of dancers calling themselves Grille d'Egout or La Goulue, of café-concerts with such names as Le Divan Japonais and prostitutes with such noms de guerre as Outamoro. In this atmosphere all the dancers I am concerned with did their work, and were treated very seriously.
Of a good many of them it was enough to say, as Symons did in his excited lines on Nini Patte-en-l'air, that they possessed
The art of knowing how to be
Part lewd, aesthetical in part,
And fin-de-siècle essentially.
Excerpted from Pieces of My Mind by Frank Kermode. Copyright © 2003 Frank Kermode. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1 - Poet and Dancer Before Diaghilev,
2 - Between Time and Eternity,
3 - Solitary Confinement,
4 - The English Novel, Circa 1907,
5 - Hawthorne and the Types,
6 - Wuthering Heights as a Classic,
7 - The Man in the Macintosh,
8 - Dwelling Poetically in Connecticut,
9 - Secrets and Narrative Sequence,
10 - Botticelli Recovered,
11 - Cornelius and Voltemand,
12 - The Plain Sense of Things,
13 - Mixed Feelings,
14 - Eros, Builder of Cities,
15 - Memory,
16 - Forgetting,
ON MISQUOTATION IN T. S. ELIOT (21.7.88),
17 - The Cambridge Connection,
18 - Literary Criticism: Old and New Styles,
19 - Shakespeare and Boito,
20 - Raymond Carver,
21 - James Lees-Milne,
22 - Auden on Shakespeare,
23 - Don DeLillo,
24 - Martin Amis,
25 - Ian McEwan,
26 - Tom Paulin,
ALSO BY FRANK KERMODE,