Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Houri 2

The poet Frederick Seidel is a minor Sylvia Plath. His 1998 poem "Racine," for instance, is an hommage to Plath's "Daddy" both in its doggerel prosody and in its Holocaust shock imagery. But the narrator of Seidel's version is a daddy himself -- a daddy who is part Baudelaire with a trust fund, part Hugh Hefner. Plath's daughter poem is about memory, but Seidel's daddy poem grows out of a parental power over memory. Another name for that power is nostalgia -- in this case, nostalgia for the days of potency in Milan

Twenty-some years ago while a motorcycle was being made
For me by the MV Agusta
Racing Department in Cascina Costa,
The best mechanics in the world
Moonlighting for me after racing hours.
One of the "Millin" women raced cars, a raving beauty.
She owned two Morandis, had met Montale.
She recited verses from the Koran
Over champagne in the salon and was only eighteen
And too good to be true.
She smilingly recited Leopardi in Hebrew.
The most elegant thing in life is an Italian Jew.
The most astonishing thing in life is to be an Italian Jew.
It helps if you can be from Milan, too.
She knew every tirade in Racine
And she was only eighteen.
They thought she was making a scene
When she started declaiming Racine.
Thunderbolts in the bar.
With the burning smell of Auschwitz in my ear.
With the gas hissing from the ceiling.
Racine raved on racing tires at the limit of adhesion.
With the gas hissing from the showers.

-- The Oxford Book of American Poetry, ed. David Lehman (New York: Oxford University Press) 923-24

"Raving beauty," writes the poet. "Too good to be true." The language is unoriginal, but originality isn't what nostalgia is about. Instead of looking forward in time toward new articulations of feeling, Seidel's nostalgic poem takes us on a playboy's tourist scavenger hunt for memories. On that premapped ground, users of words becomes tourists for the same reason they look at the pictures in Playboy: in order to open an account in an art bank and withdraw some of its currency of representation for the rainy days which are now upon them. For Seidel's persona, on his rainy day, the dream too is wet, and the bank's nice new free umbrella protects with the explicit fantasy term "motorcycle" and the  implicit fantasy term "Jewess." "Jewess" is not directly articulated in the poem, but it's built into the connotative logic underlying its language, where it pairs with "motorcycle" as one of the dangerously pretty things that Frederick Seidel, rich Jewish poet, writes poems about acquiring. For us who become complicit in the construction of the Seidel persona by (for instance) borrowing Seidel's umbrella to read "Racine," desire unfurls into envy.

The purpose of Seidel's own borrowing, the title "Racine," is to associate our desire and envy with a specifically aesthetic, specifically wordy kind of nostalgia. When nostalgia takes on literary form, every image it evokes becomes a phantom memory of something known from a page written by someone else. Accordingly, the language of such a fantasy is always second-order and derivative: borrowed, like the language of Seidel's verse. It can't be the record of an origination. It must be vicarious.

And the vicarious controls vocabulary even when its embodying dream is rated G and its ostensible view is toward the future, not the past. So in 1890, as he toured New York's slums for the estimably non-fictional purpose of housing reform, Jacob Riis still had time to look around him at a Jewish neighborhood and declare it filled with (what else would a sleepwalking boulevardier think of to say?) houris.

From How the Other Half Lives (1890).
Click to enlarge.

And "More, houri, more" breathed the semi-conscious but well-read Leopold Bloom in Bella Cohen's establishment in Nighttown.

In daylight, of course, the nighties of dream give way to something more practical and less touristy.

Jacob Epstein, illustration for Hutchins Hapgood's
 The Spirit of the Ghetto:
Studies of the Jewish Quarter of New York
(1902; New York: Schocken, 1966).

But this image is captioned  "Working girls return home." Evening returns alike to the tenements and to Wallace Stevens's houses haunted by white night-gowns, and the women in both sorts of homes change their psychic form as cognition give way to dream. But only the tenements of literature are haunted by Jewesses, and only the Jewesses metamorphose into houris. In the kind of literature that tries to be dream, houris are as immortal in their power over the metaphoric faculty as the naughty vampires of the Baudelairean pornographer Félicien Rops.

Elsewhere, along the alleyways of the Ashcan School, the wardrobe of dream is different. The dreams themselves are just as powerful there as they are in Hugh Hefner's network of bunny warrens, of course, because that's the nature of dream. But on the Ashcan School's side of the tracks, the reading matter of literary dream is different, and its vocabulary may take on bodily form in flesh that's a little on the serious side for motorcycles.


John Sloan, The Masses, May 1915, back cover.
Echoes of Revolt: "The Masses" 1911-1917, ed. William L. O'Neill
(1966; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989), 208

It's still dream, of course, and furthermore it's still wearing the nighty that the Bank of Art gave us as a nice present when we opened our account. But at least this nighty reminds us that we don't have to have either Plath or Riis on the bedside table. 

So happy 128th birthday, Mr. Joyce, and thanks very much for teaching us that "houri" isn't a woman, with a woman's power over dream. It's a word from a dictionary, browsable or not as the state of the evening may suggest.