Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Allegorical: Even Dwarfs Started Small

From Grammar to Rhetoric, there is no exegetic escalation without expansion. Grammar, as a rigid structure of definition, is closed or more enclosing than Rhetoric. Rhetoric is an exhibition of the permeability between terms.

If we take these two as bifurcating epistemes in the history of language at any given time, we are doing great disservice to the nature of language and the stake of humanity in the annals of history. One comes to know of oneself by mirrors. Rhetoric is nothing without the face of Grammar upon which to reflect.

As a thought in this reflection, allegory is best understood. Our hermeneutics are already always established. Our learning and skill with signs are not factors which we must consider before we inquire. Emulation and linkage occur, more or less, rather than are enacted. We indeed are often passively active. Allegory, then, occurs.

Unlike metaphor, which is an expressed relation between things, allegory is a resemblance of relationships. More about happenings, it seems often to just happen. When it happens, however, there are distinct registers which it can assume.

Closed allegory, or rigid allegory, or allegory which is less thoughtful in the mirror and more exactingly observant, occurs when the figures in an allegorical comparison are meant to be deciphered back into their original status. It is codification intended for decodification with the legend articulated in the composition. Certain medieval morality tales come to mind as the most obvious examples ('Pearl' and the 'Romance of the Rose,' though the best example is definitely the 400 AD 'Psychomachia' by Prudentius, in which Hope, Chastity and Humility battle Pride, Wrath and Avarice for the human soul).

Open allegory, or allegory which is more unsettled in its cognitive process in the mirror, occurs when Rhetoric is allowed to think about itself as Grammar and about itself as Rhetoric thinking about itself as Rhetoric and Grammar. These allegorical constructs have no defined decoding scale. They are not exacting. Inexact resemblances of action occur as early as 'Piers Ploughman' in English, but the happening goes back as far as humans began noticing their gestures mirrored in others, though somewhat inexactly. 'Piers' is a psychomachia that disturbs and renders breachable the boundaries between allegorical resemblers.

The more open that allegory becomes the more sympathetic that it feels. Emotive allegory is the most human allegory, the nearest to allegory in its purest sense. Shadenfreude is a deeply disturbing occurrence of allegory in the mind: Glee in a negative upshot which could well be our own, and in that case not so gleeful. The relationship is determined as an emotive corollary that simultaneously associates us with and separates us from a similar other. Being a distinctly German term, it is perhaps the Germans that best understand this. Herzog's 1970 'Even Dwarfs Started Small' allegorizes revolt and liberation in a disturbingly comical literalization of allegorical relationship.

The movie is cast entirely with dwarfs, who overrun the prison-complex in which they are kept. The mirror of seeing ourselves in a lesser other is literalized and, unlike allegory in which we decipher A for X, B for Y, and C for Z, the correlative between the viewer and the miniature figure for the viewer is an emotive glee.

The midgets run amok in the compound--killing a pig, stealing a truck, tormenting two blind children, crucifying a monkey--all while laughing maniacally. The viewer inevitably laughs with them or at them (the distinction is difficult to determine), and in so doing we are living out the emotive status of revolt. They laugh at the suffering of others and we laugh at them, laughing in effect at ourselves, albeit in miniature.

The struggle for liberation, the peril of extremism and zealotry, the violence and decimation of oppression and revolt on the human psyche are lived out in them and us. But they are not discretely allegorical: No moment or character stands in for another. The speculations of Rhetoric are far from the face of Grammar. It is here imagining itself as someone else, or rather speculating on the permeability of human action.

No other film has made these thoughts as lucid to me. Its means are, undeniably, demented and over-literalizing. Often we need a swift boot to the head to wake us from a deep sleep.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Grotesque Mr. Richard Crashaw

To preclude an overly tedious account of mid 17c political trends in England, I'll presume that the reader trusts me enough to accept that it was a compressed period of violent transitions. After three civil wars (1642-46, 1648-49 and 1649-51), Charles I had been beheaded, the Rump Parliament fractured and failed, and Cromwell named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (1653-58). Even before the wars, there was great suspicion of Charles' closeness to Catholic agents and powers, which, before Charles, had been vigorously suppressed in England by James I (1603-25).

To these convulsions, Crashaw arrived (b.1613, d.49); a period of intense politicization of the corpus of English man and woman. Within a very short period, individuals had experienced intense transformations in their legal and political status. I suspect that this instability resulted in the denaturalizations of language common to poets of this time. The Metaphysicals, as they're known, had to impart that peculiar, unbodily affect because physicality had become a legal liability.

With Herbert, for example, the activities of the mind as exhibited in his poetry are reckoned as an emanation--or struggle for emanation--of God within. But Herbert, poet, must still be effecting the poetry, so that the sense of material fixity in Herbert is continuously being undermined. Herbert's evacuation of his own agency removes the assertions of his poetry from a liable, physical person but simultaneously insists that the material of the poem should stand as a representation of the poet's, Herbert's, struggle to create.

With Crashaw, who expatriated to France during the civil wars to pursue the Catholic inclinations he had long been fostering, the metaphysicality is tended to with a distinct sensuality. Rather than evacuate, Crashaw saturates his lines with often conflicted physicalization and imagery. Describing the Christ's foot receiving Mary Magdalene's kisses:

This foot hath got a Mouth and lippes,
To pay the sweet summe of thy kisses:
To pay thy Teares, an Eye that weeps
In stead of Teares such Gems as this is.

Are they mouths? Or are they eyes? The wounds of the Christ? Is it possible to reconcile the presence of all possibilities without considering the passage grotesque? In this regard, Crashaw's poetry is fundamentally without a true body. Objects, organs and extremities liquify from sensible to insensible to strangely sensible.

Where then is the body? It is sometimes forgotten that the Christian religion began as a deeply Earthy movement. Compared to Islam, which has traditionally shunned representation of man or the world and is more aligned with a certain algebraic understanding of beauty and spirituality, Christianity, especially the Catholic version, is extremely sensuous, anthropomorphic and organic. An excellent example of this could be glimpsed in a study of Toledo in the 13th century, when the great Arabic preservation of Greek texts was being translated into Latin, while the tendencies of the Baroque are beginning to surface in the construction of some Catholic cathedrals (ie. Arabic Muslims had kept account of ideas while Christians were erecting massive, voluptuous temples of Christ--Toledo at the time was famed for its religious tolerance and had large communities of Jews, Muslims and Christians living peacefully together).

Crashaw's body does not exist--it could not exist, for reasons detailed earlier. But his idiom required he understand its non-existence in material terms. He was trying to speak of unearthliness with a strict language of the Earth. For this reason, his grotesque is more appealing than Gongora's, which often feels more conflicting than conflicted:

Pasos de un peregrino son, errante,
Cuantos me dictó versos dulce Musa
En soledad confusa,
Perdidos unos, otros inspirados...

Era del año la estación florida
En que el mentido robador de Europa
-Media luna las armas de su frente,
Y el Sol todos los rayos de su pelo-,
Luciente honor del cielo,
En campos de zafiro pace estrellas,
Cuando el que ministrar podía la copa
A Júpiter mejor que el garzón de Ida,
-Náufrago y desdeñado, sobre ausente-,
Lagrimosas de amor dulces querellas
Da al mar; que condolido,
Fue a las ondas, fue al viento
El mísero gemido,
Segundo de Arïón dulce instrumento...

Crashaw's denaturalizations--with their wounds that eyes and are mouths--seem to me more blindly natural.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Words and the Presidents that Use 'em

Bill Henry Harrison's excessive use of 'power' perhaps underscored an overweening? After his two-hour inaugural speech (delivered without overcoat or hat--to exhibit the sturdy stock of an old soldier still in him) he caught cold which turned to pneumonia and pleurisy. Died after a sickly thirty days in office.

Shattered the hopes of the Whigs and Clay's American System. Was at least the first sitting president to be photographed.

It's also said that Harrison sang himself into the presidency, as his campaign was the first to use an endemically catchy tune to fuel large crowds with song (and drink). The euphonious concatenation of polemic against Van Buren and saturated support of Harrison (nicknamed Tippecanoe) and Tyler is titled 'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.'

What's the cause of this commotion, motion, motion,
Our country's going through?
It is the ball a-rolling on
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
And with them we'll beat little Van, Van, Van,
Van is a used up man.
And with them we'll beat little Van...

'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' reverberates with the patting of a military drum. The power of its mellifluity perhaps caught too greatly in the heart of its notional progenitor? Alternate title for this post could've been 'Presidents and the Words that Use 'em.'