19 February, 2006

On Manifestos

Critics, as 'barking dogs,' . . . are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.
Thus the irrepressible bon viveur, William Empson, at age 24, from Seven Types of Ambiguity. It's not a bad little manifesto for the critic of art or literature. I like also his use of semi-colons, as rhetorical pauses somewhere between commas and periods.

My colleague K., who this week has furnished us with a tasty homemade lemon cordial, once compared epics to steak-dinners, and lyric poems to little confits for bouche-amusement, delightful and momentary. I'm not a poetry-lover myself, though ironically I have written a fair number of excellent poems; instead of epics I read scholarship, and instead of lyrics I read manifestos, a literary form now sadly neglected. The manifesto, I believe, came into being in the nineteenth century*; one thinks of the Communist Manifesto, most obviously, and other manifestoid works such as the utopian programmes of Saint-Simon, Cabet, and Fourier, the art-statements of Wordsworth (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads), the PRB (in The Germ) and Baudelaire ('Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne'), and miscellaneous texts like A Rebours and Also Sprach Zarathustra. . . the list might be extended almost indefinitely. Once in the 20th century, manifestos proper are all over the place, from the Futurist to the Vorticist to the Fascist to the Surrealist to the Lettrist and Situationist, to Solanas' infamous SCUM. Practically everything the Paris circle of Modernists ever wrote constituted a manifesto of some sort; and the same goes for the post-Structuralist mandarins.

* Having said this, one recalls a similar strain in the 17th century, with the excited productions of Bacon (eg. The Advancement of Learning) and Sprat (The History of the Royal Society), as well as printed propaganda for various political groups, such as the Levellers and the Diggers.

Nowadays it's the architects who turn out the finest examples of manifestos. They have their modernist ancestors too: the works of Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut on glass architecture, and then the more well-known treatises of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Paolo Soleri. But as a respite from the subtler-than-thou exegeses of Empson et al. I was sucking today on a juicy bonbon by Sébastien Marot, entitled Suburbanism and the Art of Memory (1999). Like many similar texts I've read or just looked at, there is no argument in this book. There are some pretty engravings from Renaissance volumes, and some fashionably-blurred photographs of modern architectural projects to complement a free-associative text, the violent yoking together of heterogeneous elements, in this case Yates on memory, Freud on Rome as a symbol of the unconscious, Robert Smithson on suburbia, and some other dude on spatial construction. It's rather pleasant to let this work, random and suggestive, wash over one's mind. It makes one think rather Grandly, or rather to daydream without really thinking at all. The 'manifesto' aspect lends works like this a pretence of ideological urgency, the delicious intimation of a call to arms! which appeals to the youth in all of us.

The Surrealists and Imagists (among others), moreover, have legitimated the enjoyably crappy quasi-aleatoric pseudo-Freudian haikuism now offered by pompous poet-architects; Daniel 'Shard' Libeskind, for instance, offers gobbets like 'Terra ingognita: poor Rosicrucian vexing an innocent lama, trying to collar a gnat with diaphanous thread, hurling sanctimonious invectives on fir trees ­burglar sent by rhyme'. Marot, meanwhile, expropriates fragments of the genuinely beautiful Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, which, now that it has been translated and given the 'Leonardo Code treatment', as one correspondent has put it, is fair game for excitable theorists. (Actually, I think it has been fair game ever since Linda Fierz-David 'related' her The Dream of Poliphilo in 1950 to the Jung fanclub, aka. the Bollingen Press. But that's another post.)

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