Commentaries - July 2012

Lounge chair by Gerald Summers

Does a chair sit or stand?

A body can sit in a chair. Bodies are different, though, and sitting can look like a lot of things: you can sit on the edge of the seat with your back straight, letting the chair support your body in just one place; or, alternately, you can slouch and sink into the chair; you can draw your legs up and let them dangle over the sides, or cross one over the other, or fold them together in a lotus. You can do other things that look sort of like sitting: you can kneel, squat, or curl up in a ball. You can also stand on the chair's seat to reach an item on a high shelf, or climb onto a higher platform.

The chair seems to have fewer options. But what is it doing? Its limbs (not its seat and back) rest on the ground, so it's standing. However, insofar as the posture of the seat and back reflect that of the body it supports, it's sitting. And then, with all of its limbs pressed to the ground, it seems to be doing something else. Maybe its expression is suppliant. Praying, maybe. Or crawling?

Chairs are quasi-human in that human workers make them, and in that they share some features in common with human form: they have legs and a seat, and may also have a back and arms. From this point of view, the number of limbs on a chair seems excessive. Four legs and two arms add up to an insect body; and, as with insects, the chair's skeleton tends to be exposed. If you include a human sitter as part of the package, then you might have additional sets of legs and arms, which, if you imagine the latter as jaws, could make a spider-like body. Three legs might be just enough to make a rooted tree, or a plant that propels itself by its roots, such as a Triffid.

(There are chairs in the world that have only one leg, which is a human possibility. Is there an example of a chair with two legs, standing or walking upright? How many legs do you count on Gerald Summers's lounge chair, made of a single ingeniously molded length of plywood, where the legs, arms, back, and seat are not distinct but a continuous surface? Maybe that's more of an amoeba body.)

I will return to the question of chairs in a later post. Today I want to focus on footstools, which are either a primitive kind of chair, or an adjunct to chairs. In a remarkable motif in Marlowe's verse plays, a footstool has two positions, standing and stooping. The following passage is from Doctor Faustus.

Pope Adrian: Cast down our footstool.

King Raymond: Saxon Bruno, stoop,

Whilst on thy back his holiness ascends

Saint Peter's chair and state pontifical.

Pope Bruno: Proud Lucifer, that state belongs to me!

But thus I fall to Peter, not to thee.

Pope Adrian: To me and Peter shalt thou groveling lie

And crouch before the papal dignity.

Sound trumpets then, for thus Saint Peter's heir

From Bruno's back ascends Saint Peter's chair.

(Doctor Faustus, B-Text, 3.1.88-97, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen [Oxford, 1995])

Pope Bruno, the footstool, has to be "cast down," because he wasn't originally in the down position. He has to "stoop" from an upright position, and -- because, left to his own devices, he wouldn't always be waiting by the throne to be used -- for that to happen, someone has to tell him to stoop. Pope Adrian can't tell him. An elaborate chain of command separates Adrian from direct communication with the furniture. The chain of command links elite political operators: Adrian, a spiritual power, gives the command to Raymond, King of Hungary, a temporal power, who passes it to Bruno, a rival spiritual power. Here the chain breaks down. The footstool resists. He thinks he is the Pope; he says so distinctly and eloquently.

From a design perspective, Bruno's service as footstool is impractical. His use could never be ordinary and is, on the contrary, ritualistic. Surely some clever engineer could imagine a smoother, more comfortable path to the throne. Bruno's ritual function is something more important than comfort, which is the opposite of comfort. Adrian sacrifices his own comfort to enhance Bruno's discomfort.

I deliberately use the word discomfort rather than dehumanization. The footstool in this scene has everything in common with human form, because Bruno's is a human body, living and whole. His other human attributes include a gender (masculine), a name (Bruno), and an ambition (to enjoy the state of the papacy) and its verbal expression ("That state belongs to me!").

(Some scholars think that he might be Giordano Bruno. I would like to think so too, because this identification would give him the additional human attribute of participation in intellectual history. Giordano Bruno, victim of the persecution of Clement VIII, and a sort of animist thinker, might have appreciated the image of a defiant stool talking back to the pope. However, since the character is called Saxon Bruno rather than Nolan Bruno, I doubt it.)

This list of attributes is overspecific if we are merely trying to establish Bruno's humanity, and that is the point: this footstool is overspecific.  When Adrian intones: "Cast down our footstool," he refers to one footstool only. No other article of furniture in the Vatican collection, no matter how practical or costly, will do.

Adrian and Raymond do not conspire to strip Bruno of his individuality or his human attributes. They refer to him as a footstool, but they also address him as Bruno, and allow him some freedom to express his views. They even listen and respond to what he says. (Adrian studiously refuses to give Bruno direct commands, but he does reply to him directly.) They never dispute Bruno's human dignity. They only disagree on the political question of whether he should also enjoy "papal dignity."

Thus the primary audience for their performance is Bruno, whom they treat as a negligible utility but never take for granted. They want to convince him that he is not the Pope. To a lesser degree, Adrian may be his own audience.  He may need to hear himself declare his ascension so that he can remember that he is actually the Pope -- because it's confusing when someone else makes the same claim. Bruno's short speech has the same logic: he wants Adrian to hear that he does not acquiesce, and he wants to hear it too, particularly in circumstances that are destructive to his self-image.

In a later post, I will take up the question of what Marlowe gets from the scene of Adrian's ascension "from Bruno's back," and what his audience may be expected to get from it. I'll conclude this post by noting a tertiary audience within the scene. This audience is an anomalous figure. It has no lines -- an extraordinary omission for a character in a play by Marlowe. Others talk to it and about it, but it does not talk, although it does have a human identity, a gender, and a name. I am referring to St. Peter's chair.

St. Peter's chair

In the setting designed by Bernini in the century following Marlowe's death, the chair has become almost inaccessible. To ascend to its seat, you would need something more than a footstool; you might have to stand on the shoulders of both John Chrysostom and Augustine, the church fathers who stand to the right of the chair, and who are made of the same materials.

Christopher Wood and Alexander Nagel have studied the logic by which St. Peter's basilica retains its identity during a period in which it is being destroyed and rebuilt (Anachronic Renaissance [MIT Press, 2010], 313-319). Their account ends before Bernini intervenes, but the "chain of substitutions" they uncover is useful for understanding the association of the chair with Peter. The gilded bronze chair that Bernini designed encloses a much older chair that Peter may or may not have actually sat in; or the older chair may include wood fragments from a chair that Peter once sat in. However old the older chair may be, it takes its chronology not from the epoch of its manufacture but from the ancient epoch to which it refers.

Further, by synecdoche, the chair refers to its traditional sitter in the ancient epoch, Peter, who is the antitype of the two rival popes. Bruno clarifies that he "falls" only "to Peter," and thus to himself, because Peter is his model; while Adrian further clarifies that Bruno, in falling to Peter, can't help falling "to Peter's heir" (meaning Adrian) as well.  The chair has no lines because it has nothing to add to this exchange. Links on the same chain of substitutions, each of the rival popes refers to the same type as the chair.

There is a fine symmetry in the composition of this scene. A man acting as a footstool declares his submission to a chair acting as a man.

Next: Tamburlaine's footstool.

When I first began teaching in the MAT program at Bard in 2011, I was asked to propose a graduate course based on the standard areas of study within the literature track, which includes a “major authors” course. I had just completed a dissertation on gender and American poetry after 1945, in which all my major figures were marginalized women poets but in which I had frequently turned to Williams as the major figure of masculine modernism to whom many poets writing after 1945 turn — and away from whom they turn, also. I had become increasingly fascinated with literary inheritance and disavowal, and how theories of gender and identity might help us understand how poetic form behaves genealogically. I kept coming back to Williams as a beloved and contentious figure for American poets both major and marginalized.

In her 1980 lecture “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses,” for example, Alice Notley writes, “Gertrude Stein & William Carlos Williams got married: their 2 legitimate children, Frank O’Hara & Philip Whalen, often dressed & acted like their uncle Ezra Pound. However, earlier, before his marriage to Gertrude Stein, Williams had a child by the goddess Brooding. His affair with Brooding was long & passionate, & his child by her was oversized, Charles Olson.” Notley rewrites the genealogy of American poetry by playing with traditional laws of reproduction, feminizing male bodies and mating poets of different generations. And her piece centers around Williams, to whom she alternately rages and speaks indebtedly and lovingly.

So I chose to organize a major authors course around Williams, because he had already served as a figure who helped me coalesce variant concerns around modernism, gender, and poetic form. I chose him also because of his popularity in the secondary school classroom: I imagined many robust debunkings of the pat canonization of “The Red Wheelbarrow” with my student-teachers in training, who would now see that quintessential lyric within all the complexity and strangeness of Spring and All. And I chose Williams because he leads us to many other authors who populate my syllabus, from Poe to Spicer to Notley to Bernadette Mayer.

Now that I approach teaching this course for a second summer, I’m thinking even more this time around the politics of the major author study. A web search turns up this line from an English Major Worksheet at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa:

If a course is used to fulfill the Single Author requirement, it may not be used to fulfill an Historical Breadth requirement.

Does the Single (or Major) Author course sacrifice Historical Breadth? And yet isn’t it supposedly History that determines who are the Major Authors?

The wonderful Vancouver poet Daphne Marlatt was recently the recipient of the 19th annual George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award (administered by the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Public Library). It was also Woodcock’s centenary, and I was asked to say a few words about him.

I imagine that there are fewer and fewer people who remember George Woodcock, who died some 17 years ago. He was a highly influential Canadian “man of letters” (as they used to say) — a poet, critic, travel writer, and author of biographies and other popular works of non-fiction. The founding editor of the journal Canadian Literature in 1959, Woodcock was also an influential political thinker, whose books on anarchist philosophy perhaps did more to popularize that ideology than any other publications in the decades immediately after the Second World War.

What interests me about Woodcock is the fact that these spheres of activity — the literary and the political — appear to have remained fairly distinct and discrete for him, throughout much of his career. Indeed, in the preface to Notes on Visitations, Poems 1936-1975, he writes:

“When I assembled my Selected Poems in 1967, I adopted a principle of choice which I now realize was too exclusively aesthetic, with the result that many poems inspired by political or moral passion were left out.”

There are no doubt many factors pressuring a poet to make such a decision — not the least of which would be the long shadow of Modernism and T.S. Eliot (Woodcock grew up in England and began writing poetry in the 1930s). However that may be, much of the best political poetry (and I do think Woodcock’s is good political poetry) is written by poets living through times of intense social turmoil (think of the poetry of Latin and South America through much of the twentieth century), and these poets rarely see hard and fast lines, let alone feel a need to choose between, the aesthetic and the political.

I think, for many poets today, we are more and more living in such times, where the urgency of the growing divide between rich and poor, global economic and environmental crisis and collapse, and increasingly oppressive governments intent on austerity programs, fuels the sense that to pursue “purely aesthetic” ends now is to fiddle while Rome burns.

Our aesthetics are never completely separate from our social contexts. The more interesting question to me these days is not whether or not a poem makes direct, explicit political/social reference, but the context in which poetry is written and read, the communities it presumes, instantiates, and participates in, and the solidarity it produces — both within that community, and between potentially allied communities. If I introduce a poem by saying that I employed such and such a procedure or constraint, or if I say that a poem was written in solidarity with such and such a political struggle, what is actually on the page will in some ways take a back seat to the invocation of a community present in these “external” contexts.

I neither believe in one political tactic for all times and places nor in one aesthetic practice or technique for all times and places. I think, so long as we are working through communities, and towards solidarity between communities, from the bottom up, then a certain degree of political and aesthetic profligacy is healthy.

In other words, if we can speak of a “diversity of activist tactics,” can we also imagine a “diversity of aesthetic tactics”? I am increasingly drawn towards such an idea.

Here are the closing stanzas of one of the poems Woodcock withheld on aesthetic grounds — “Sunday on Hampstead Heath”:

And in the broken slums see the benign lay down
Their empty useless loves, and the stunted creep
Ungainly and ugly, towards a world more great
Than the moneyed hopes of masters can ever shape.
In the dead, grey streets I hear the women complain
And their voices are the sparks to burn the myth of the state.

And here where my friends talk, and the green leaves spurt
Quietly from waterlogged earth, and the dry leaves bud,
I see a world may rise as golden as Blake
Knew in his winged dreams, and the leaves of good
Burst out on branches dead from winter’s hurt.
Then the lame may rise and the silent voices speak.

Finally, here is a poem I wrote for (and read at) the Woodcock centenary (note that Woodcock was a friend of Orwell’s, and wrote a full-length study of him as well). I will note as well — in terms of context and community — that a number of activists with whom I currently organize were arrested and roughly treated by the Vancouver police shortly after I wrote this poem, and that I subsequently read it at a rally in their support. I wrote the poem with Woodcock’s “aesthetic” “choice” in the forefront of my mind, with every intention of being as blatantly “political” as I could be. Let it stand as a foray into my own “diversity of aesthetic tactics.” Context, community, solidarity, and struggle do, in the end, make a difference.

Orwell on Facebook

It’s when we wake up
To realize we are not free —

Endless links to YouTube videos
Of the police beating people

Some banker types claiming
They are representative, elect

Throwing everything — rivers
Lakes every animal on land

And sea and love itself on the fire
Of their endlessly accumulating wealth —

It’s only then that we at last face
The real threshold of our lives:

Will we “Like” what’s actually on offer
Or bite down hard on the boot in our face?


at The Memorial Library, 58 East 79th St., second floor (between Park Ave. and Madison Ave.), New York, NY

Reception for the show: Sunday, July 15th, from noon to 3pm.
This is the only time the show will be open to the public.

This show features
nine etchings from Sigmund Laufer's series "The Holocaust" from 1960-1964. The series has not been shown together in New York City since Laufer's solo show at the AFI Gallery, 1067 Madison Ave., in 1965.

Sigmund Laufer (1920-2007) grew up in Berlin until age sixteen, when he emigrated to a northern Palestinian Kibbutz as part of the Youth Aliyah of European Jews threatened by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He then moved to Jerusalem where he met his future wife, Miriam Laufer, also an artist and a refugee from Berlin. After the war in June 1947, they emigrated together to New York City, where they had two children, Abigail Laufer and Susan Bee (Laufer). Laufer began working for the Board of Jewish Education as a book designer, calligrapher, and art director of the children's publication, World Over. He was employed by the BJE for 44 years from 1948 to 1992. Upon moving to New York, Laufer simultaneously began his career as a printmaker and artist, and created black and white and color etchings and lithographs. His first exhibition was just two years after arriving in New York, as part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1949. He had solo shows in New York and was included in many group shows. His work was widely reviewed. Laufer’s prints are part of many collections, private and public, in the United States and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the National Library in Paris, and the National Museum in Jerusalem. Visit his website here.

This show is sponsored by The Memorial Library: