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Notes Toward a Gone World: Reading Radicalism in Ancient World Literature


March 1, 2017

How do we read? Is it enough in The Scene to talk about radical poetics from the perspective of what writers intended to say as they wrote and published. They wrote for whatever purpose they intended, but does that mean we should feel bound to read as they wrote? Big Question. But think of Great Literature itself–ok, canonical literature–from a radical perspective. (You define “radical”). And, of course, I’m concerned, really, with literature of the Western world.

What if we all read the Great Literature of the past the way the radical critic and scholar Jan Kott read Shakespeare? As Peter Brook said, Jan Kott “is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes without question that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night.”

So here we have Homer screaming through the centuries to us about Achilles vs. Agamemnon vs. Hector and the horrors of ARETE–the essence of Homeric manhood.Really? That’s the story? Should Achilles have stayed in his tent? Look at those long Homeric similes. How do you read those things? Like everybody else? Or not?

Or Sophocles dramatizing Destiny/Fate, Creon and the machinery of the political state ready to crush Antigone, ready to crush us. If you really want to get down to something that hits home, read Aeschylus and Euripides the way some supercharged zig zag director today would stage their plays.

Or the dialogues of Plato and especially those in and about the trial of Socrates. They crawl under our shirts, under our pants and up, up, up terrifying us as 21st century readers because  we see The Terror as the STATE executing its citizens for crimes of the mind.Be careful what you THINK!

How can we read Aurelius and Augustine today?—How to live in a police state? Be not perturbed.

Even Dante and the descent into the Inferno. Can you imagine real Horror, true Horror that makes Stephen King stories into baby board books?

Chaucer? ah, the human comedy. But why do we laugh? Or any old comedy, really. The Comedy of Errors? That’s life, folks. Have you ever seen a Feydeau farce?

Or Machiavelli—look around you, folks. Go downtown.

Castiglioni?—true Renaissance life; studied nonchalance? Ha ha! take me to the funny farm!

Where am I going with this way of reading? I don’t want to think about it. (Ok, let’s think about it. Follow The Scene.)


Notes Toward a Gone World: Basic Premises About Literature for The Scene


Intercepted by Gravitation, Paul Klee

Here is what I believe, and everything I write or do on any of my blogs or in any of my books is predicated on these simple principles.

  1. A work of great art is the ultimate act of human creativity.
  2. Great art celebrates by its mere existence the divinity that is part of us all.
  3. Great art celebrates by its mere existence the best and greatest of our culture.
  4. The best and greatest may not be what the Establishment thinks as the best and greatest.
  5. The Scene celebrates the best and greatest radical poetry and literature of Western Civilization.


The Relationship of the Beat Movement to the 19th-Century Romantic Movement

February 27, 2017


Kenneth Patchen with Anais Nin, Unidentified man and Virginia Admiral, Cafe Reggio, MacDougal St, Greenwich Village, New York City (1940)

Notes Toward a Gone World

The Beats were 20th/21st-Century Romantics. Virtually everything about the Beat Movement—its lifestyles, its revolutionary spirit, its promotion of non-conformity and individualism, its aesthetic theory and poetry (especially) and fiction—would be perfectly compatible to the Romantic Movement.

That said, Romanticism is much more complex, a much broader movement. The Beats are almost exclusively American. Very little influence from European Romantics is evident. Of course, the school poets of British Romanticism prevail. Very little Gothicism from Scott, Radcliffe, etc. matters to the Beats.

But, above all else, both movements embrace subjectivity and reject objectivity. Both celebrate feelings, impressions, emotions in their searches for truth and are suspicious of studied, empirical observation separated from individuality.

Both the Romantics and the Beats see the poet/artist as a creative soul, set apart from others, who seeks to reveal himself/herself to the reader soul to soul.

Exceptions abound to everything I say above and my observations do not take into account the complexity of both movements. However, Romanticism eventually developed into postmodernism with the Beats in the vanguard. The Enlightenment developed into modernism. Twenty years ago or more I would have said that enlightenment>modernism was proving a colossal and evident failure to all while romanticism>postmodernism was predominating in intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual thought. Now I’m no longer sure and I am deeply concerned.

Notes Toward a Gone World: The Subversive Nature of Art and Literature


February 23, 2017

I have started out all my blogs with this post–or manifesto, if you will. Just to establish from the beginning of The Scene, this is what I believe.

Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.

  • Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
  • Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
  • The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
  • All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares?  Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.

So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.

Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?

Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in. Follow The Scene.

Paul Varner