Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dead Souls

Interesting article in The New Yorker on artists who immolate, who take big swaths of their work and put it forever beyond the reach of texts and their scholars. Kafka would have had it so, if he had been obeyed. And doesn’t Emily Dickinson read like someone who always thought it was going to happen that way? In some quasi-Borgesian way, the poems feel like it did happen to them, and we are only reading them through some metaphysical accident. My fiction professor wrote a novel about Hemingway’s lost suitcase full of manuscripts, only to discover that two other novelists had also done so. The trope was kicking about in the ether around that time, apparently. These damaged, endangered, or posthumous texts hold a mystique that can’t ever be fully stomped out. As one of Stoppard’s characters laments in Arcadia, it’s all Cleopatra’s fault:

But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. O, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

When I was 18, this was exactly the sort of thing that would have kept me up at night. Like those meticulous listeners of vinyl who somehow still know that the Beatles covered it up that Paul really was dead (which kind of explains Wings, if you think about it), there will always be an audience for aftertaste of these defunct books. Maybe people don’t really feel that way about poetry because poems are themselves rather endangered, tenuous propositions which already seem to argue that they’re not really on the page, but elsewhere, thwarted and receding, undone by other agents and pow’rs.

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